Iran Presidential Election 2013: Saeed Jalili Is No Different Than Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

After the contingency of Iranians who still believe that their vote actually counts hits the polls on June 14, Saeed Jalili — Iran’s salt-and-pepper haired nuclear negotiator, Iran/Iraq war veteran, and elderly Shia Harry Potter doppelganger — will most likely emerge the victor.

This doesn’t bode well for the West, since Jalili presents the status quo and has been handpicked by Iran’s Guardian Council and ultimately Ayatollah Khamenei himself. While all of the candidates must be vetted using this laughably undemocratic process — of which only eight of 686 candidates were approved — Jalili is the most popular of them all. This popularity doesn’t bode well for Iranians either, who must go through the painstaking process of determining what, if anything separates Jalili from Iran’s outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Jalili represents the traditionalists of the Revolutionary regime; he is reminiscent of the twistedly romantic time of the regime’s infancy when Iran was losing 10,000 men a month to a martyr’s paradise with Iraq, Iranians achieved their independence after decades of foreign oppression, and America famously gained its current moniker, “The Great Satan.” While the rhetoric has been reeled back a bit, the policies have not.

Jalili is staunchly opposed to retrenchment of Iran’s nuclear program, believes that sanctions provide opportunities for economic growth, and is in favor of Iran’s current foreign policy stance. None of this is surprising, but the one area where Jalili has shown hints of progressive economic thought is privatization away from Iran’s bloated public sector.

While his beliefs seem vague, his statements provide clues as to his motives,

“At least over the past few years when I have been carefully following the effects of sanctions, I see that they can be easily bypassed and turned into opportunities.”

While 75% of this statement seems smothered in pro-revolutionary, election season rhetoric, the other 25% could hint towards reforming the most vitally important aspect of Iran’s economic survival: the diversification of its economy away from fossil fuels and towards other areas. 

The majority of Iran’s revenues come through its oil sector, and anyone who knows anything about the “resource curse” — the controversial phenomenon common with countries that are still growing, have relatively weak economic institutions, and try to rapidly capitalize on their vast mineral wealth are likely to fail — knows that Iran’s trajectory is a dangerous one indeed. Jalili may realize this, but he faces considerable pressure both internally and externally if he wishes to make this common sense move away from oil exports. 

Internally, many stand to benefit from the continued cronyism of the oil-based economy, since many businesses in Iran are owned by the Revolutionary Guard and by other organizations linked to the military and public sector. Such existing structures work well for these elements, and they wield significant political power to maintain the current system since many are aligned with the Ayatollah. 

Externally, sanctions, Western pressure, and negative press over Iran’s nuclear program make significant foreign investment difficult to attract. An agreement on the nuclear issue would be the fastest way for Iran to reform its economy, but the president of Iran, regardless of who takes the throne, has little power if the Ayatollah diverges from their viewpoint.

While it is ironic that the only real difference Jalili brings to the table is also the most important reform the country could undertake, the irony and opportunity alike seem likely to die at the hands of an aging revolutionary ideology that will take down scores of young Iranians who desperately desire a chance to better their lives.