The Debate

Three Reasons for the U.S. to Like Iran’s Presidential Candidates

Recent disqualifications are a setback. But there’s much for the U.S. to like in the remaining candidates.

Zachary Keck

This week’s disqualification of Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei and Akbar Hasehmi Rafsanjani as presidential candidates was bad for Iranian democracy and the Islamic Republic. But it was a boon for the U.S. and its Western allies.

Indeed, there are at least three reasons the U.S. should love the field contesting Iran’s presidential election next month, or at least the overwhelming majority of the main contenders— Tehran’s Mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf; former Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati; Saeed Jalili, currently the head of the Supreme National Security Council and lead nuclear negotiator; Gholamali-Ali Haddad-Adel, a former speaker of parliament whose daughter is married to the Supreme Leader’s son; and Hassan Rowhani, former head of the Supreme National Security Council and current aide to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

1: Brother, Can You Spare a Mullah?

The first reason is the lack of clergy in the race. Indeed, with the exception of Hassan Rowhani, who’s a hojjat al-islam (but not a hardliner), none of the leading candidates are clerics. This is consistent with the declining prominence of clerics in Iran’s elected institutions over time, which is paradoxically most prevalent among the Conservatives, at least when it comes to the factions’ leading personalities.

The U.S. isn’t necessarily predisposed to favor non-clergy Iranian leaders – indeed, the West’s two favorite Iranian politicians, former Presidents Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami, are themselves clerics by training, while the Iranian leader the West most despises, current President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, comes from a non-clerical background.

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Still, it is undeniable that the U.S., despite its own high levels of religiosity, has always been uncomfortable with the Islamic nature of Iran’s political system. This is most evident in the way Iran is often depicted as irrational or a “Martyr state” in the U.S., despite the fact that its foreign policy is far more consistent with realpolitik. Thus, Washington has a general interest in seeing the clergy’s role in politics decline.

2. It’s the Foreign Policy, Stupid

Although Iranians, like people everywhere, will vote their pocketbooks in the election next month, the U.S. and its Western allies are obviously more concerned with Iran’s foreign policy. Unfortunately for Iranians, only Tehran Mayor Ghalibaf boasts any kind of economic experience, given his success in managing the capitol city.

Meanwhile, with the exception of Adel, all the lead contenders have substantial backgrounds in foreign policy. Velvati and Rowhani, for instance, are two of Iran’s most experienced diplomats, while Jalili has spent almost his entire career working on foreign policy issues. Ghalibaf is by comparison less experienced in foreign policy matters, having spent most of career dealing with internal security issues, but he nonetheless served as the Revolutionary Guards’ air force commander.

The fact that these men are old foreign policy hands doesn’t necessarily work in Washington’s favor, of course. Still, with little experience in economics, most of the candidates are likely to look to foreign affairs to score an early victory in their presidency. With the regional balance of power turning against Iran, and sectarianism on the rise, the most sensible place to seek such a triumph would be in negotiations with the U.S.

Of course, Iranian presidents have limited (though certainly some) authority in the foreign policy sphere. Any notable diplomatic action with the United States will require the consent of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

3. Children of Khamenei

Fortunately, the biggest reason the U.S. should support Iran’s presidential field is because all of the individuals are close to Supreme Leader Khamenei. This is in the U.S. interest because Washington is almost entirely concerned with Iran’s nuclear program and, as I’ve argued before, Khamenei has always been most willing to conclude a deal with the U.S. when he feels secure domestically and is confident he’ll get the lion’s share of the credit for a rapprochement.

By this measure, this crop of presidential candidates is outstanding. This is especially true of Velayati, Adel, and, to a lesser extent, Jalili, all of who have risen through the ranks of the Islamic Republic almost entirely because of their relationship with the Supreme Leader(s). Khamenei is almost certain to feel most confident about his ability to conclude a deal with the West should any of these three men become the next president.

Rowhani is also an aide to the Supreme Leader and a long-time supporter. Still, Khamenei’s likely to be slightly more concerned about him because he is also close to former Presidents Khatami and especially Rafsanjani, which he could leverage to assert some autonomy from Khamenei. Overall though, Rowhani is a huge improvement on Ahmadinejad in Khamenei’s eyes.

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The candidate that Khamenei will rightly view the most suspiciously is Tehran Mayor Ghalibaf, but even he has been a Khamenei ally. Nonetheless, Ghalibaf’s combination of charisma, managerial experience, and strong ties to the IRGC give him the potential to emerge as a formidable competitor to Khamenei over time. Moreover, the Islamic Republic’s political structure has created a “dual authority” that gives the president every institutional incentive to mount a challenge to the Supreme Leader.

This is problematic for Khamenei because, having marginalized almost all the other factions, he has much less ability to check the power of the IRGC. Thus any battle between Khamenei and Ghalibaf will really be a battle for the loyalty of the IRGC, in which Ghalibaf could ultimately prevail.

Thus, with the possible exception of Ghalibaf, the Iranian presidential field appears to be highly favorable to U.S. foreign policy interests, albeit less so to the Iranian people and their checkbooks. As usual, the Islamic Republic is full of perplexing paradoxes