“Inflexible” Nuclear Negotiator Frontrunner in Iran’s Election

Saeed Jalili is accused by other candidates of stubbornness in nuclear talks with the West.

Iran's National Security Council secretary and chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili in Almaty, Kazakhstan, February 25
Iran’s National Security Council secretary and chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili in Almaty, Kazakhstan, February 25 (Reuters/Shamil Zhumatov)

With a few days left to go in the campaign, millions of Iranians are preparing to cast their ballots this Friday to determine who will become their next president. While the disqualification of former president and presumed pragmatic Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani dealt a severe blow to the prospect of a moderate or reformist victory, the election season still had its share of excitement.

It is certainly not uncommon in the world of politics for candidates to accuse one another of being unpatriotic, unfit for the job or inexperienced. It was a frequent ingredient of the last presidential election in the United States. What is unusual about Iran it that such criticisms tend to spiraling into shouting matches while millions are watching.

Iran’s final televised presidential debate represented the epitome of how tough and cutthroat its electoral process can be. Virtually every candidate on stage — there are now six — accused the others of being weak in the face of international challenges or incompetent in managing Iran’s poor economic climate.

Frontrunner Saeed Jalili, who has chaired Iran’s National Security Council for the past six years, was singled out for criticism from most of the other nominees. Ali Akbar Velayati, once Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s foreign-policy advisor, was especially rough on him, accusing Jalili of being uncooperative and stubborn in his nuclear dealings with the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany.

“Being conservative does not mean being inflexible and stubborn,” Velayati said, adding that since Jalili has been in charge of negotiations about Iran’s nuclear program — which Western powers fear will give it the ability to build a bomb — “we have not made a step forward and the pressure has been exerted on the people.”

Velayati has some merit to that argument. Talks between Iran and the international community over the former’s uranium enrichment program have stalled since Jalili took on the position of the chief diplomat.

Jalili is known to be a stalwart defender and loyal servant of the supreme leader’s as well as a fierce advocate of Tehran’s anti-Western foreign policies. He grew up during the most bloody and troubling time in the Islamic republic’s young history when tens of thousands perished in a war with neighboring Iraq. His participation in the war as a frontline soldier, in addition to his later work at the Imam Sadiq University, an institution that churns out many of Tehran’s future leaders, molded him into the type of revolutionary figure that Ayatollah Khamenei has come to rely on to preserve his political system.

A win by Jalili will most likely produce a pliable president who defers to the supreme leader’s office on those issues that matter most to the rest of the world: Iran’s nuclear program, its support of international terrorism and its crackdown on political activism. As Iran’s leading negotiator with major powers over the nuclear issue, a win for Jalili could also very well result in a doubling down of the country’s uranium enrichment efforts.

Barring a surprising win by Hassan Rouhani, the only reformist still in the running, the world will likely see a continuation of Iran’s current foreign policy — a reality that will not help the cause of peace in the Persian Gulf.

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