Nate Silvering the Iranian Elections

Does 538 work when only one person runs the show in Tehran?


A close reading of Iranian politics over the last decade would suggest that Friday’s presidential election could well be decided on the principle of "one man, one vote" — that one man, of course, being Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

All of Tehran’s most powerful institutions — namely the Revolutionary Guards, bassij paramilitary, Intelligence Ministry, Guardian Council, Parliament, judiciary, state television, and wealthy religious foundations (bonyads), to name a few — are led by individuals either handpicked by Khamenei or unfailingly obsequious to him.

Based on the premise that there are few cases in history in which Middle Eastern autocrats have restrained themselves at the buffet table of power, Khamenei is likely trying to actively influence — if not decide the outcome of — Friday’s ballot. As such, the Islamic Republic’s version of Nate Silver — who expertly synthesized public opinion polls to predict the outcome of the 2012 U.S. presidential election — is less a statistician and more a psychologist who can best understand what’s going on in the supreme leader’s head.

Mindful of the fact that the graveyard of Middle East analysis is littered with the bones of those who tried to predict Iranian presidential election outcomes, bear with me as I try to Nate Silverzadeh the Iranian electoral field. Rather than attempt to gauge the will of the people, what follows is an attempt to gauge the election from Khamenei’s eyes.

So what are the qualities that the Supreme Leader seeks in the next president? In his own words, he wants a "competent, virtuous, pious, revolutionary, resolute and steadfast person with jihadi perseverance, who can shoulder the heavy responsibility of [boosting] the country’s dignity and progress."

Like all understandably paranoid autocrats, however, Khamenei above all seeks something that has been lacking in all previous presidents that have served under him — subservience. The Guardian Council, which is under his control, disqualified 678 of the 686 potential presidential candidates — including such heavyweights as the former president, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, and outgoing President Mahmoud Ahamdinejad’s chief of staff, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei. Iran’s contenders for the country’s top job (wait, make that No. 2) have gotten the hint, crafting their rhetoric to appeal as much to the supreme leader as to voters.

Candidates have courted the popular vote while simultaneously auditioning to be the supreme leader’s trusted lieutenant — someone whom Khamenei can count on to have accountability but little power, so he can wield power without accountability. Here’s a guide to the frontrunners.

Mohammed Bagher Ghalibaf: Mayor of Tehran and a former Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commander. Ghalibaf’s campaign dilemma resembles Mitt Romney’s in 2012 — he’s a man who wants to run as a pragmatic manager, yet has to pay lip-service to his conservative base. In Ghalibaf’s case that base isn’t a loose collection of Tea Party enthusiasts, but Khamenei.

Saeed Jalili: Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator and head of its Supreme National Security Council, which serves a comparable role to its U.S. counterpart (think Tom Donilon meets Hassan Nasrallah). In a nutshell, Jalili is twice as ideological as Ahmadinejad, and half as charismatic.

Ali Akbar Velayati: Think of him as an Islamist Warren Christopher, the "unswervingly uncharismatic" former U.S. Secretary of State and trusted presidential consigliere. Velayati was Iran’s longest-serving foreign minister and has been a long-time confidante of the Supreme Leader.

Hassan Rowhani: Previous head of Iran’s National Security Council and its former chief nuclear negotiator under reformist president Mohammad Khatami, Rowhani is Iran’s John Kerry (circa 2004) in that his constituents — including many embattled Green Movement supporters — are far more animated against the status-quo than they are animated about Rowhani himself.

Mohsen Rezaei: The lead commander of the IRGC during the Iran-Iraq war, Rezaei can perhaps be best understood as the Alexander Haig of Iranian politics. He’s a military commander cum businessman who’s always thought of himself as presidential material.

Based on the qualities and qualifications that Khamenei seeks in the next president, how does each candidate stack up?

Subservience (0-5)

While each candidate has gone out of his way to praise Khamenei and declare his fidelity to the Islamic Republic’s theocratic political model, some have expressed more devotion than others.


Jalili: 5

Jalili has shown himself to be the supreme minion. The nuclear negotiator’s political devotion should come as no surprise: Once an anonymous apparatchik in the foreign ministry, Jalili’s political career took off after working as chief of staff to Khamenei. In a recent press conference with university students, Jallili was asked whether he would sacrifice his life for the Supreme Leader: "Inshallah [God willing]," he said, while kissing the Quran.

Velayati: 4.5

A longtime Khamenei advisor and confidante, Velayati has proven his loyalty to Khamenei over three decades, though given their similar age and experience he is unlikely to be as servile as Jalili.  

Ghalibaf: 2

While Ghalibaf is publicly deferential toward Khamenei, he is one of the few Iranian politicians whose lightly concealed ambitions for power and authority rival that of the current president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Given his background as both a military commander and the head of Iran’s police force, Ghalibaf is used to giving orders more than taking them.

Rowhani: 1.5

As nuclear negotiator, Rowhani would respectfully disagree with Khamenei, according to members of his nuclear negotiating team. The presidential hopeful has also won the endorsements of former Presidents Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami, leaders on the reformist end of the spectrum who favor limiting the supreme leader’s vast powers. As a result, Khamenei likely sees Rowhani’s candidacy as a Trojan horse for his rivals.

Rezaei: 1.5

During Iran’s eight-year war with Iraq, Rezaei — then the top IRGC commander — frequently sparred with Khamenei, who was Iran’s president from 1981-1989. A senior Iranian diplomat once told me that the notoriously unforgiving Khamenei continues to "despise" Rezaei.

Commitment to revolutionary principles (0-5)

What are "revolutionary principles"? For Khamenei, it means a commitment to velayet-e faqih, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s political-religious concept that legitimizes the rule of the Shiite clergy; resistance toward the United States and Israel; and preserving Islamic cultural mores such as the mandatory veiling of women, forbiddance of alcohol, and vibrant religious seminaries.

During this campaign, all the candidates have publicly paid lip service to these principles. In years past, however, several have expressed sympathy behind closed doors with the views of Khatami and Rafsanjani, who believe that the Islamic Republic must evolve with the times in order to sustain itself.


Jalili: 5

Jalili’s campaign slogans, which employ Islamic principles to justify political and economic resistance against the United States and Israel, align closely with Khamenei’s worldview. "We are seeking to dry up the roots of the Zionist regime," Jalili has said. "Instead, we promote the Islamic system. This discourse rejects domination. This is the discourse of the Islamic revolution."

Velayati: 5

In 16 years as foreign minister and two decades as Khamenei’s foreign policy advisor, Velayati’s statements are often platitudinal and rarely, if ever, deviate from the party line. "I will make effort to promote the Islamic culture and Iranian identity," he said on the campaign trail. "Abidance to the law and the Leadership will be the most important characteristics of my administration and ethicality will be a code of conduct for us."

Rezaei: 3.5

While Rezaei has advocated opening relations with the United States, he also has gone to great lengths for the Islamic Republic. A prominent Iranian-American academic alleged that in 1978, Rezaei personally assassinated his father, formerly an engineer in the National Iranian Oil Company. Rezaei is also wanted by Interpol for his alleged role in the 1994 bombing of a Jewish Centre in Buenos Aires, which killed 85 people and injured 300. He has denied these allegations.

Ghalibaf: 3

While Ghalibaf publicly pays lip service to revolutionary principles, in private he often talks about a need for Iran to put economic and national interests ahead of ideological ones. In contrast to reformists, who advocate greater political and social freedoms, Ghalibaf’s philosophy of governance appears to resemble the modern authoritarianism of China. He is not overly interested in Islamic pieties — he’s more focused on securing power in his own hands.

Rowhani: 2

An acolyte of Rafsanjani, Rowhani’s nuclear negotiating team consisted of three moderate, U.S.-educated advisors, all of whom have advocated rapprochement with Washington. In contrast to other clerics — like Khamenei — who spent their formative educational years in Qom or Najaf and berate Western cultural mores, Rowhani spent time studying in Glasgow, although the veracity of his PhD is in question.

Managerial competence (0-5)

The Islamic Republic is one of the most challenging governments in the world to manage. It rules over a young, disaffected population, some three quarters of which was born after the 1979 revolution. Its leadership — namely, Khamenei — operates under a bunker mentality that assumes the United States is committed to its overthrow. And it is grievously isolated from the international community: Iran suffers from U.S. sanctions against its central bank, a European oil embargo, and six U.N. Security Council resolutions. The inflation rate is estimated to be more than 40 percent, and the youth unemployment rate is similarly sky-high. Most of Iran’s top managers and technocrats either fled the country after the revolution or emigrated abroad in the past three decades, and those who worked under previous presidents Rafsanjani and Khatami have subsequently been purged from the system. In other words, few first-rate managers are also revolutionary ideologues and Khamenei devotees.  


Ghalibaf: 4

Ghalibaf has received high marks as mayor of Tehran for the last 8 years. Despite ostensibly having a PhD in "geopolitics," the biggest vacuum in his managerial resume is foreign policy experience.

Rowhani: 2.5

Rowhani has boasted that under his shrewd management, Iran made progress on its nuclear program without being subjected to U.N. Security Council resolutions. Running a small nuclear negotiating team, however, is much different than managing an unruly nation of 75 million.

Rezaei: 2.5

As lead IRGC commander during the Iran-Iraq war, Rezaei has experience overseeing hundreds of thousands of men. His lectures since then make him sound like an Islamist Jack Welch, touting his managerial acumen. During the war years, however, he was known as a hot-headed commander who didn’t know when to retreat.

Velayati: 1.5

Velayati, who was trained as a medical doctor, has never been one to proclaim, "the buck stops here." As foreign minister, his tenure was dominated by strongmen — Khomeini, Rafsanjani, and Khamenei — who were the primary decision makers of Iranian foreign policy.

Jalili: 1

The supreme leader’s yes-man has little management experience to speak of. "His entire resume consists of showing up at a few negotiations and saying ‘no,’" a prominent Tehran businessman told me, sarcastically. "This of course makes him eminently more qualified than anyone else."

Popular appeal (0-5)

Popular support isn’t a primary factor for Khamenei — if it were, very few of the current candidates would be in the race — but it could prove challenging for him to simply anoint the most servile candidate without any consideration for what the people want. That said, high vote turnout has always been priority for Khamenei, in order to project international legitimacy. "A vote for any candidate," Khamenei frequently says, "is a vote for the Islamic Republic."


Rowhani: 3

Iranian public opinion polls should be taken with a large chunk of salt, given the inherent challenges of asking authoritarian-ruled societies sensitive political questions. In the last several days, however, Rowhani’s candidacy has experienced a surge which is palpable both empirically and anecdotally. The lone "reformist" voice of a young population thirsty for change, Rowhani lacks Khatami’s genial touch, is for millions of Iranians the least bad option.

Ghalibaf: 2.5

Ghalibaf leads most "official" polls, and finishes a close second to Rowhani in arguably the most objective unofficial poll. His reputation, however, took a blow among the youth and middle classes, when audiotapes were released in which he boasted of personally crushing student protests in 1999 and 2003 while head of Iran’s police force.

Jalili: 1.5

As astute Iranian scholar Mohsen Milani told me, Jalili is "not merely uncharismatic, he’s anti-charismatic." Despite all the resources at his disposal, Jalili lags behinds in both official and unofficial polls. His harsh demeanor has made little inroads with the country’s urban youth — arguably the most important voting bloc. Nor does he employ the same pious populism as Mahmoud "I will put the oil money on your dinner tables" Ahmadinejad.

Rezaei: 1

Rezaei is a less charismatic version of Ghalibaf — a military commander who touts his non-ideological management skills. In media speak, he also has a "face for r
," which perhaps explains his low support among women.

Velayati: 1

Notwithstanding his recent endorsement by a group of Iranian diplomats and MPs, Velayati’s social and institutional support base is limited. Without the support of the basij, IRGC, urban youth, and moderate middle class, Velayati’s sole constituency is Khamenei.

Revolutionary Guard support (0-5)

While there is little evidence to back some analysts’ assumption that Khamenei has become a servant to his own "praetorian guards," there is ample proof that the IRGC has eclipsed the clergy in terms of economic and political influence. Given Khamenei’s increasing reliance on the Revolutionary Guards in nuclear issues, on Syria, circumventing sanctions, and maintaining public order, it makes sense that it is perhaps the most critical interest group that he has to take into account.  


Ghalibaf: 4

A decorated war veteran, Ghalibaf joined the IRGC at the tender age of 19 and quickly rose through the ranks. His rapport with the military institution is perhaps akin to that of an American high school football captain years after graduation. His former teammates respect him, and the younger generation respects his legacy. Qassem Soleimani — commander of the IRGC’s powerful Qods force unit — reportedly endorsed Ghalibaf.

Jalili: 2.5

Jalili, who is sometimes referred to as a "living martyr" because he lost part of his leg fighting in the Iran-Iraq war, isn’t shy about mentioning his military service. But his low-level service in the IRGC during the war can’t compete with Ghalibaf. Jalili, however, is reportedly more popular with the younger generation IRGC cadres who are devoted to Khamenei.

Rezaei: 2

Rezaei belongs to the first generation of IRGC commanders, and is less well known to today’s servicemen since he has been out of the service for nearly two decades.

Velayati: 1.5

Velayati never served in the war, or in the IRGC. He’s a product of the Foreign Ministry — a considerably less important electoral constituency in Tehran (as in DC).

Rowhani: 1

Rowhani did not serve in the war, and his association with reformists — who have been critical of the IRGC’s outsize role in Iran’s politics and economics — will not win him points here.

So, who wins?

Tabulating these numbers produces the following result:

Ghalibaf: 15.5

Jalili: 15

Velayati: 13.5

Rezai: 10.5

Rowhani: 10

But prophesizing the outcome of the Iranian election depends less on the sum total of these numbers and more on one’s opinion of how the system itself functions. Those who trust the integrity of the electoral process — an increasingly small group — foresee a run-off between Rowhani and Ghalibaf. Those who believe that Khamenei’s decision is paramount project Jalili as the obvious winner. And perhaps for the first time, Khamenei may see his interests in conflict with those of the Revolutionary Guards.

If past is precedent, however, there’s one thing we do know: predicting anything about Iran’s opaque politics is a fool’s errand. And, having never progressed beyond college calculus I am no Nate Silverzadeh. But if there’s something that seems like a good bet, it’s that the Supreme Leader will remain supreme.

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