- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 26, 2013

Iran’s June 14 elections are expected to produce a president loyal to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei and not improve prospects for an end to the country’s nuclear standoff with the West or its support for President Bashar Assad’s embattled regime in Syria.

The Guardian Council, composed of jurists and clerics who vet all candidates for elected office, has whittled a list of nearly 700 presidential hopefuls down to eight.

“The remaining major candidates are all pliable tools of the supreme leader,” said Kenneth Katzman, a specialist in Middle Eastern affairs at the Congressional Research Service. “None of the likely winners will attract significant momentum in the U.S. or the West to ease any sanctions. None of those figures are considered to be in any sense an improvement by the West.”

Iran’s supreme leader controls foreign policy and the country’s nuclear ambitions.

“The core of foreign policy and domestic policy will remain the same because the supreme leader is the decision maker, but the tone can definitely change,” Ali Vaez, senior Iran analyst at the International Crisis Group, said at a panel discussion at the Wilson Center on Thursday.

Saeed Jalili, Iran’s top nuclear negotiator, and Tehran Mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, former head of the air force wing of Iran’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, have emerged as the election’s front-runners. Both are deeply loyal to Ayatollah Khamenei.

Mr. Jalili has worked closely with Ayatollah Khamenei on crafting Iran’s nuclear negotiating strategy.

Iran insists its nuclear program is intended for peaceful purposes, despite Western and Israeli suspicions that it is building an atomic weapon.

On Wednesday, the House Foreign Affairs Committee unanimously passed sanctions legislation aimed at preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons.

“The U.S. sanctions are at a point now where the only thing that would really change the equation is an outright embargo on Iran’s sale of oil,” Mr. Katzman said. “Anything short of that I very much doubt will rattle Iran enough to change its nuclear policy.”

Besides Tehran’s nuclear ambitions, the Obama administration also is concerned about the role Iran is playing in Syria, where a 2-year-old civil war has claimed the lives of at least 80,000 people, according to a U.N. estimate.

In an unprecedented move, Iran has deployed its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps ground forces on training and advisory missions with the Assad regime inside Syria.

Iran-backed Lebanese Hezbollah militants also are fighting alongside Mr. Assad’s forces.

“The mistrust between Iran and the West, Tehran and Washington in particular, is not going to go away any time soon,” Mr. Vaez said.

The Guardian Council most controversially disqualified two-time former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who had supported a less-hostile relationship with the U.S., and Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s chief of staff.

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