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Iran ensures no change with West in presidential election

- 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.

"Disqualifying Rafsanjani further signals the regime's unwillingness to reach a compromise with the West in the nuclear issue, and resistance to domestic demands for political and economic liberalization," said Ali Alfoneh, an independent Iran analyst. "The Islamic republic seems reduced to a garrison state preparing itself for suppression of the domestic opposition and resisting pressure from the outside world in the nuclear issue."

Besides Mr. Jalili and Mr. Qalibaf, the other candidates are former Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati; Hassan Rowhani, a former chief negotiator in nuclear talks with the European Union; Gholamali Haddad-Adel, whose daughter is married to Ayatollah Khamenei's son; Stanford University-educated reformist Mohammad Reza Aref; Mohsen Rezai, a former commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps; and Mohammad Gharazi, a little-known former petroleum minister.

Mr. Rafsanjani and Mr. Mashaei were seen as threats to Ayatollah Khamenei's authority.

Iran's conservative establishment sought to discredit Mr. Rafsanjani from the moment he announced his candidacy. It targeted his vast wealth, his advanced age (78) and his support for the protests that followed 2009's disputed presidential election.

Mr. Mashaei is closely aligned with Mr. Ahmadinejad, who has had a falling out with Ayatollah Khamenei.

The establishment also has sidelined reformist opposition leaders. Former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karoubi have been under house arrest for the past two years.

"The reformists in Iran are between a rock and a hard place," Mr. Vaez said.

The question now on some analysts' minds is whether Mr. Ahmadinejad will take a parting shot at the establishment before he leaves office.

"A lot of the suspense has been taken out of this election," Barbara Slavin, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council's South Asia Center, said at the Wilson Center. "The only remaining question, to me, is what will Ahmadinejad do? Will he or Mashaei or others in their circle release the dossiers [on corruption] against the elite that they have been threatening to release for months, even years, now?"

The presence of Mr. Rafsanjani and Mr. Mashaei on the ballot would have helped turn out the youth vote. Their absence means there is likely to be an anemic voter turnout in a country in which roughly two-thirds of the population is below the age of 30.

"All those who want to modernize Iran, a great majority of those people will stay home," Mr. Katzman said.

This would be an embarrassment for Ayatollah Khamenei, who sees high voter turnouts as a validation of the Islamic republic.

Iran is widely believed to have exaggerated voter turnout during parliamentary elections in 2012.

"There was a joke doing the rounds in Tehran at the time that 80 percent of the people were sitting home watching 70 percent vote on television," Ms. Slavin said. "You will see the same phenomenon in the presidential election."

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