Why Iran's next election could be disastrous for the U.S.

After June 14, Iran could become more isolated from the West than ever

Presidential candidate Saeed Jalili speaks under an oversized portrait of the Iranian supreme leader during a campaign rally on May 29.
(Image credit: AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

One day soon, American lawmakers might actually be wistful for the days when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was in power. With Iran's presidential election looming on June 14, it appears Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has a new favorite: Saeed Jalili, Iran's chief security official and nuclear negotiator. If elected, Jalili, 47, is expected to be "the perfect follower of Khamenei," an analyst in Iran told The New York Times. An avowed hardliner, Jalili once said the goal of Iran was to "uproot capitalism, Zionism, and Communism, and promote the discourse of pure Islam in the world."

How did Jalili become the frontrunner in the upcoming election?

Probably because the conservative Guardian Council — six of whose members were handpicked by Khamenei — wanted it that way. The council whittled a slate of thousands of potential candidates down to eight, and ruled two of the most viable candidates unfit to run: Ahmadinejad's top aide Esfandiar Rahim Mashaie and former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Criticizing the council's moves, Prof. Ali Ansari, director of the Institute for Iranian Studies at the University of St. Andrews, laments the state of Iran's electoral process:

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Indeed the unpredictability of the Iranian political system is not a reflection of its inherent 'democracy', but of the absence of the rule of law and the growing identification of power in the person of Khamenei. Both the Guardian Council's "rulings" (which it should be stressed are neither published nor explained) and the fact they can be overturned on the whims of the Supreme Leader, are indicative of this harsh reality.

What we are left with is a tightly controlled "election" with a dry and uninteresting field. [CNN]

Iranians and U.S. officials seeking reform in Iran, are similarly dissatisfied with the council's choosing Jalili. Both Mashaie and Rafsanjani have advocated for better relations with the West. Mashaie, despite his ties to Ahmadinejad, has publicly said that he sees no enmity between Iran and the United States or Israel. He also sought to attract investment from the millions of Iranians overseas, something that, according to The Washington Post, conservative clerics and politicians have opposed.

As for Rafsanjani, who served two terms as president, his supporters hoped that he would have enacted modest reforms without raising Khamenei's ire. But Rafsanjani's tepid support of the Green Movement, when thousands of Iranians took to the street to protest the re-election of Ahmadinejad in 2009, might have done him in. The Guardian Council's official reason for excluding him was that Rafsanjani, at 74, was too old to run for office.

That leaves Jalili, who could render Iran more isolated than ever, at the precise time that the country's economy desperately needs a boost. Iran is suffering through 32 percent inflation, a plummeting currency, and a 50 percent drop in oil exports as a result of U.N. sanctions.

Yet Jalili remains outwardly optimistic, pushing a philosophy of political resistance against the West as the cure for Iran's economic woes. "The fact that the Iranian nation is defending their rights makes [the U.S.] hopeless," Jalili said recently at a press conference. "Today they are witnessing Iran's eye-catching progress, thanks to [Iranian] resistance."

A leader that trumpets isolation, resistance, and a Panglossian view of his country's economic and military might? Sounds familiar, writes Max Fisher at The Washington Post:

North Korea is always a dangerously extreme comparison to make, but Jalili's repeated insistence that Iran is in a constant state of victory over the United States, but that it must also accept some economic hardship as a cost of ongoing struggle, carries uncanny parallels to official ideology under North Korean leaders Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un. [Washington Post]

For those hoping that the Green Movement might be the catalyst for reform, Jalili would be a major step backwards.

"We are fighting an ideological war — nobody cares about the economy," Amir Qoroqchi, an electrical engineering student and Jalili supporter, told the Times. "The only thing that matters is resistance."

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Keith Wagstaff is a staff writer at TheWeek.com covering politics and current events. He has previously written for such publications as TIME, Details, VICE, and the Village Voice.