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Exclusive: Iran's frontrunner for president speaks of his life battling US power

Saeed Jalili, Iran's top nuclear negotiator, has declared his candidacy for the June 14 presidential election. The forever revolutionary is fiercely loyal to hardliner Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

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Iran's chief negotiator Saeed Jalili attends a news conference at the Iranian Consulate in Istanbul last week. Jalili has declared his candidacy for the June 14 presidential election.

Osman Orsal/Reuters

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Iran’s smiling but immovable top nuclear negotiator, a revolutionary and wounded war veteran with a decades-old suspicion of the United States, has become a frontrunner in Iran’s presidential race. 

Saeed Jalili's shock of white hair, rimless eyeglasses and crisp white shirt buttoned up to his trim salt-and-pepper beard make him one of Iran’s most recognizable figures in the West, but he has proven an enigmatic figure for those who have sat opposite him at the negotiating table during years of fruitless nuclear talks.

Mr. Jalili can interact with smiles, laughter, and even well-placed charm. But his calm and low-key demeanor – he wears sensible shoes of soft black leather that don’t require polish, and he could not be more different than the flamboyant, divisive, and fiery outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – does not diminish his uncompromising message of Iranian resistance, and preserving Iran’s “right” to nuclear energy.

Jalili told The Christian Science Monitor that the Islamic Republic of Iran is winning its strategic struggle with America, despite crippling sanctions and Western attempts to isolate it from the world. And Jalili says that he is the man to carry Iran’s revolutionary torch into the future.

“Whoever becomes a candidate for the office of the presidency, I believe should think that he’s the best man for the job,” Jalili told the Monitor during an interview in Istanbul. A 47-year-old who ascended on the diplomatic fast-track, supporters hope his fierce loyalty to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei will make up for his lack of popular charisma.

When asked about poisonous Iranian politics, and vicious campaign battles already underway, Jalili replies with conviction, and a knowing laugh: “Before I entered the fray, I knew what I was getting into."

Jalili’s chances soared today, as Iranian State TV announced that just eight candidates from nearly 700 had been approved by the Guardian Council. Several big-name fellow conservatives remain in the race. But disqualified were heavyweight two-time president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, as well as Mr. Ahmadinejad's hand-picked choice, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei.

The disqualification of Mr. Rafsanjani was a surprise – he has been a regime stalwart for a generation and engineered the elevation of Khamenei to his "supreme" post, but was sympathetic to the 2009 post-election protests. The Council hinted yesterday that physical fitness would be a new criteria, and the 78-year-old might not pass.

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For the Islamic Republic, the June 14 election could not be more important. Both inside and outside Iran it is seen as a critical step to restoring legitimacy to a regime tainted by the last presidential poll in 2009, which resulted in street protests against fraud, calls of “death to the dictator” – in reference to Ayatollah Khamenei – and a violent government crackdown that earned widespread condemnation and in which some reports suggest Jalili played a key role.

Jalili denies that he is Khamenei’s “choice” to be president – a key asset but one which, in Iran’s rough-and-tumble politics, would never be publicly acknowledged because the supreme leader is meant to stay above petty politics. But Jalili told the Monitor that he felt a “duty” to run, to “shoulder the responsibility” to perpetuate the ideals of the Islamic revolution that he says Iran still exemplifies, although many Iranians these days argue otherwise.

Faithful revolutionary

Jalili expects that thawing US-Iran relations will be difficult, given his own experience of the 1979 Islamic revolution, the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war, and most recently the Western diplomatic effort to curb Iran’s nuclear program, which he calls “unbalanced.”

“Everything depends on the behavior that American administrations are going to show,” Jalili told the Monitor. “They themselves have come to realize that their policies have been wrong. And American candidates utter the slogan of ‘change’ when they are electioneering. But one has to wait and see if that change will ever come about, or not.”

Jalili has never shied away from echoing Khamenei's criticisms of US policy toward Iran and the Muslim world.

“The fact that the Iranian nation is defending their rights makes [the US] hopeless. Today they are witnessing Iran’s eye-catching progress, thanks to [Iranian] resistance,” Jalili said at a recent press conference.

Noting the fall of pro-Western dictators like Egypt’s former leader Hosni Mubarak, but separating Egypt's case from the popular anger against Iran’s embattled ally Bashar al-Assad in Syria, he said, “The US should tell the world what it wants to do: to continue to confront free nations, or support dictators?”

In public, Jalili has never strayed from praise for the supreme leader, and his loyalty may have extended to the violent aftermath of the 2009 election. Khamenei, speaking at Friday prayers one week after the 2009 vote as protests were gathering pace, warned those taking to the streets to "open their eyes and see the enemy," and publicly authorized a crackdown.

The New York Times reported at the time that Jalili had been described by Iranian sources as a “chief architect of the clampdown.” The facts remain unclear. In March 2011, Jalili spoke before the Assembly of Experts about the “behind the scenes” events of the “sedition” of 2009, although he never alluded to any role of his own. Instead, he claimed that the US, UK, and Israel had allocated $55 million to support the uprising in cyberspace, resulting in 874 anti-regime websites, to smear the success of religious rule in Iran.

Jalili has a PhD in political science from Imam Sadeq University, which is known for the ideological hue of its students. His dissertation on 7th century political thought was turned into a book called “Foreign Policy of the Prophet of Islam.”

Jalili spent years working on foreign policy in Khamenei’s office, assuming the post of director general at just 36 years old. From 2005 he was an Ahmadinejad adviser and then deputy foreign minister for European and American affairs. He reportedly helped write an unprecedented 18-page letter from Ahmadinejad to President George Bush. The letter claimed that liberal democracy had “failed” in the West, and noted how “history tells us that repressive and cruel governments do not survive."

The White House panned the document as a religious screed and did not reply.

When Jalili was appointed in 2007 to lead nuclear negotiations as head of Iran’s National Security Council, there were complaints inside Iran that he had too little experience. A Western diplomat in Tehran told Reuters he “specializes in monologue,” not debate.

Still, as a “symbol of resistance” in charge of the nuclear file, Jalili’s star has risen amid threats from US and especially Israeli officials that they would attack Iran to stop the program.

'Scar tissue'

As far back as mid-2012, Jalili supporters began planting the seeds of a presidential run with websites, which have now morphed into a slick social media operation that includes a torrent of tweets in Persian and English, and even an Instagram account.

They paint him as a simple and pious man and compare, for example, his Iranian-assembled Kia Pride, which he drives himself, to the chauffeur-driven bright blue Mercedes of Mr. Rafsanjani. This week, a new Jalili support group was formed with the name, “The Rise of the Oppressed.” Other conservative candidates – including Ahmadinejad’s brother – have dropped out of the race, putting their support behind Jalili.

Jalili says the two defining events of his life are the revolution and 1980s war, and both have left him with scar tissue. 

He was just 14 when revolutionary turmoil swept Iran’s hated monarch from power, and Jalili was captivated by what he saw as the promise and sacred ideology put forward by the thundering father of the Islamic republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the bot shekan or “idol smasher,” who ousted the Shah and broke Iran’s ties with the West.

Jalili wears his religiosity on his forehead: a thick, brown circle, imprinted by years of prayers as a devout Shiite Muslim, of pressing his head down to earth on a clay disk.

“The Islamic revolution has shaped my thinking, and now we know that a nation can defend its rights, and can make progress, despite what certain powers like America would like to see,” Jalili told the Monitor. “America wanted the Shah to stay in power, but the Iranian people refused, and the Iranian people imposed their own will over [America’s].”

That belief very much motivates Jalili’s vows not capitulate to “illogical” Western demands in nuclear talks with world powers.

And there are other examples, Jalili says, that illustrate America’s failures and Iran’s triumphs. In the 1980s, Washington backed Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, and “insisted that Saddam should be the victor of the Iran-Iraq war. I ask you: Where is Saddam right now?” asks Jalili. (The Iraqi leader was toppled by the US invasion of 2003 and unceremoniously hanged in 2006.)

Jalili cites Egypt's decision to sign the US-brokered Camp David accord with Israel in 1979 – after which it became a close ally of the US and was showered with money – while Iran became an enemy targeted by sanctions.

“For 30 years the Americans provided the highest level of support and friendship to Egypt, and the most enmity was shown towards Iran,” Jalili told the Monitor, noting Mr. Mubarak’s overthrow in a popular revolt in 2011.

Quoting an Egyptian scholar, Jalili says: "The result is that today the Iranians are sending satellites into space, and we can’t even provide for the daily bread of our people."

War memories

The second most formative event for Jalili was the war. As a young volunteer frontline scout, Jalili manned watchtowers and monitored enemy movements, sending target coordinates back to artillery units. Jalili’s social media accounts today publish photos of a bearded young man in uniform at the front, and portray him as a humble war hero. 

Jalili fought in the Karbala 5 offensive in early 1987, one of the biggest battles of the Iran-Iraq war with tens of thousands of dead on both sides, and heavy Iraqi use of chemical weapons. Iranian sources indicate that Jalili’s lower right leg had to be amputated due to lack of proper equipment at the Shalamche frontline.

Even in the grim annals of the Iran-Iraq war, which claimed nearly 400,000 dead on both sides, Shalamche holds a legendary place. Another survivor, cameraman Reza Borji, once said: “We gave a martyr every 1.5 meters; that is, the whole place was covered with [the bodies of] martyrs…. This war was sacred for us.”

Not all Iranians felt the ideological pull of the war in the same way. Many secular Iranians – those who wanted a reformed and kinder, gentler Islamic revolution, or none at all, many of whom years later took to the streets as part of the opposition Green Movement in the 2009 protests – formed the other side of Iran’s wide social divide. 

But for a believer like Jalili, such an experience at Shalamche was a searing moment that he rarely talks about in public, which few of his Western diplomatic counterparts could comprehend. The result for him is a stated reliance on those early principles of resistance and justice to solve every problem, from sanctions to the nuclear issue.  

“Even after the end of the war, the Americans continued to work to prevent the growth and the development of that idea, in different fields and different settings,” says Jalili.

But US “efforts to stymie our scientific progress” have failed, as have sanctions. “Nevertheless, people of my generation continue to feel that responsibility, because of that call to duty.”

The result, claims Jalili, is that “Iran has managed to break the imposing stature of America.”

“We fully believe that this idea [of Iran’s revolution] has every potential to help different peoples to prevail over those clubs of power and wealth, and can bring happiness, prosperity and welfare for different societies,” Jalili told the Monitor.

Yet applying those concepts to a modern election campaign is not easy. Jalili has been criticized for lack of executive experience. Some have argued that Jalili’s uncompromising style has set back nuclear talks and deepened Western mistrust.

Jalili this week said the Ahmadinejad government was like a “decrepit car” and he would have his work cut out as president to remove the “obstacles” slowing Iran’s progress.

It is not clear if Jalili can inspire an Iranian electorate buffeted by sanctions, discontent, and economic hardship that, after 2009, is sometimes fed up with voting. He says his own victory as president is secondary to keeping Iran on a proven, revolutionary path.

“This feeling of responsibility was not limited to the war…. Everyone came together to help push this idea forward, and help it blossom,” Jalili told the Monitor. “I’m very pleased to say that in all fields, such selfless devotion and service has paid off. We have become very successful.”

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