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Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei stocks election to replace Ahmadinejad with loyalists

Nuclear standoff, Syria backing to persist with candidates loyal to Khamenei

- The Washington Times - Monday, May 27, 2013

Iran's June 14 elections are expected to produce a president loyal to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and do nothing to improve prospects for an end to its nuclear standoff with the West or support for President Bashar Assad's embattled regime in Syria.

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

"The field of candidates has been whittled down to men who are extreme loyalists to Khamenei," said Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

"The decisions on Iran's nuclear program are most likely to remain in the hands of the Supreme Leader and his Revolutionary Guard. ... Unless the West is prepared to bring the regime to the brink of economic collapse combined with the credible threat of military force, we are unlikely to break the nuclear will of the regime," he said.

Kenneth Katzman, a Middle East specialist at the Congressional Research Service, called the remaining candidates "pliable tools of the supreme leader."

"None of the likely winners will attract significant momentum in the U.S. or the West to ease any sanctions," he said, referring to punitive economic measures imposed over Iran's nuclear program.

Iran's supreme leader controls foreign policy and the country's nuclear ambitions. Iran insists its nuclear program is intended for peaceful purposes, but the United States, Israel and European nations suspect the regime is building nuclear weapons.

Some analysts believe Ayatollah Khamenei could have more domestic political security after the election of one of the loyalist candidates and possibly more flexibility in nuclear negotiations.

Ayatollah Khamenei has been locked in a political struggle with two-term President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is prohibited from running for a third time.

"But there's also a school of thought that says once Khamenei has his internal situation under control that he's going to be more inclined to go with his own instincts," Trita Parsi of the National Iranian American Council added, "and his instincts have consistently been to be paranoid, be suspicious, be skeptical and be averse to taking risks toward peace in the negotiations."

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 Guard Corps, have emerged as the election's front-runners.

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 U.N. estimates.

In an unprecedented move, Iran has deployed its Revolutionary Guard 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 anytime soon," said Ali Vaez, an Iran specialist with the International Crisis Group, said during a panel discussion at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in the District on Thursday.

The Guardian Council most controversially disqualified two-time former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who had supported a less-hostile relationship with the United States, and Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, Mr. 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.

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