The Ayatollah’s Point Man

Meet Saeed Jalili, the holier-than-thou front-runner in Iran's presidential election.


In politics, vapid certitudes, fortified by real or professed pieties, form a dangerous brew. Saeed Jalili, Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator for the past six years, not only proudly drinks it like Kool-Aid, but offers servings to the troubled people of Iran as a panacea for their economic, cultural, and political challenges, and also as a path to salvation in the afterlife.

Jalili, at 47 years old, is the youngest candidate in the presidential election taking place this Friday — and he owes his meteoric rise to his unabashed fealty to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. We are, the Iranian presidential candidate has repeatedly declared, travelers through this fleeting material life — but residents of the other, more important eternal Existence. "All across the region we can hear our battle cry, ‘Ya Ali,’" he said, referencing the son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammed, a vaunted figure in Shiism. "We heard it in Lebanon with the victory of Hezbollah. We hear it in our resistance against the Zionist regime. Time and time again we have proved our strength through this slogan."

Jalili, who was declared the front-runner in the presidential race early on by media outlets close to Khamenei and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), is often praised as "our living martyr" due to his loss of one leg in Iran’s eight-year war with Iraq. He was appointed director-general of the office of the supreme leader in 2001 and then became an advisor to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad following the 2005 presidential election. The confrontation between Khamenei and Ahmadinejad did not damage the supreme leader’s trust in Jalili, however, as Jalili was entrusted with the Islamic Republic’s nuclear file in 2007. Iran’s position in its negotiations with the West became more uncompromising after his appointment: A U.S. State Department cable released by WikiLeaks reported how an EU official "was struck by his seeming inability or unwillingness to deviate from the same presentation" and described him as "a true product of the Iranian revolution."

Such sentiments, however, have not protected Jalili from attacks by Khamenei’s other loyalists. Ali Akbar Velayati, the other candidate known to be favored by the supreme leader, used the last televised debate to lambast Jalili for his utter failure in nuclear negotiations: Iran is facing harsher sanctions, it has repeatedly been referred to the U.N. Security Council, and its nuclear program is less accepted by the international community than when Jalili took over the portfolio. Jalili returned this verbal fire in kind, saying that his foreign-policy choices are based on a "pure Islam."

The two men’s attacks on each other are particularly revealing — and ironic — as they have both repeatedly said in the past that Iran’s nuclear policy is set by Khamenei. In other words, they are debating an issue over which they say they have no control. This is just one of the many paradoxes that define modern Iran: In the presidential election, Khamenei desperately wants what he referred to as people’s "epic" participation on election day, but at the same time he laid the groundwork for a motley crew of "vetted" candidates seemingly designed to provoke apathy.

Jalili embodies the stale political consensus sanctioned by the supreme leader. The regime has tried to drum up support for him: No sooner had he announced his candidacy than sites close to Khamenei praised him as the embodiment of Islamic values and virtues, while local offices of the Basij — a militia connected to the IRGC — tried to organize rallies in support of him.

But the surge of support failed to materialize. Even the commander of the Quds Force — a critical part of the IRGC, responsible for foreign operations — was quoted as saying he would be voting for another candidate. Polls published by some sites loyal to the regime found Jalili garnering no more than single-digit support. Meanwhile, some conservative sites claimed that Jalili was in fact Ahmadinejad’s stealth candidate, while others criticized him for his lack of executive experience.

Win or lose, Jalili’s candidacy is the perfect metaphor for what has befallen Iran. He is one of the most successful alumni of the centerpiece of the Islamic regime’s education system, Imam Sadiq University. As products of the regime, both the university and Jalili represent Iran’s shifting place in the world since the 1979 revolution.

In the years before the revolution, a family of innovative Iranian industrialists succeeded in collaborating with Harvard University to set up a satellite campus of the famed American university in Tehran. The team set up a state-of-the-art campus and began giving out Harvard MBAs — but its doors were shuttered after the revolution. The campus was eventually turned over to Ayatollah Mohammad Reza Mahdavi Kani, who in the early days of the revolution was the head of revolutionary committees and a trusted aide to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and is now an ally of Khamenei. The Harvard campus was renamed Imam Sadiq University; since then, it has been a Kani fiefdom, and the school’s mission statement makes it clear that it considers its duty to select students based first and foremost on their professed piety.

If success is based on one’s pious pedigree, Jalili succeeded with flying colors. It is often claimed, falsely, that he wrote his doctoral dissertation on the Prophet Mohammed’s foreign policy. In fact, the subject of his dissertation, which was finished in 2001, is the political paradigm of the Quran. In a language chilling in its certitude, he not only claims that Islam’s holy book offers a complete, inerrant, and timeless model for politics and life, but adds that the sine qua non of belief is complete submission to — and implementation of — the book’s divine wisdom. His dissertation advisor was Ahmad Alamolhoda, the Friday prayer leader of the city of Mashhad and one of Khamenei’s most stalwart allies. In Alamolhoda’s most recent sermon, for example, he claimed that anyone who does not vote in the upcoming election will certainly go to hell.

Jalili is still focused on piety at the expense of practical realities. He refuses to recognize the existence of a serious economic crisis, even as oil exports have been reduced to the lowest levels in more than a half-century. Instead of proposing solutions on how to end sanctions and reduce tensions, Jalili offers facile certitudes about the need for an "economy of resistance." In one televised interview, he suggested Iran’s economy could be improved if Iran stopped buying millions of dollars of ice-cream sticks from Germany: As he put it,
"Imagine how many jobs we can create in our villages by producing ice-cream sticks ourselves."

One of the main slogans of Jalili’s campaign is hayat tayyebe — "pious living." It is a phrase that comes from the Quran and, according to Jalili, demands absolute belief in the righteousness of Khamenei’s leadership. He often repeats verbatim what the supreme leader has said — that pious living is political resistance, not compromise.

Jalili’s views on social issues are also framed through his conception of "pious living." In a meeting with a group of women in late May, he drew a sharp distinction between the Western and "Islamic" view of the role of women. In Islam, he said, the most basic unit is the family, and "women’s identity is through family, which is the same as being a mother." Iranians should not, he claimed, be ashamed of this view — it is the West that should be ashamed.

In today’s Iran, where more than 60 percent of college science degrees are earned by women — in spite of the obstacles the regime throws in their way — ideas like Jalili’s are a hard sell. That might be why, with every passing day, his candidacy is also proving to be a harder sell — even for his powerful supporters.

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