There is little time left till the day of presidential election in Iran. The country’s Supreme Religious Leader is ayatollah Ali Khamenei, still the President is the head of executive power according to constitution and has an important role to play. The clout of spiritual leader in the Iranian politics is often exaggerated, for instance the outgoing President Mahmud Ahmadinejad proved to have a great degree of independence. No wonder, this forthcoming event hits the radar screen globally.
To avoid the repetition of mass street protests during the 2009 elections, Ali Khamenei reduced tension by disqualifying the most problematic presidential hopefuls and thus getting them out of the race. They are former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, the leader of reformist movement, who enjoyed the support of incumbent President Ali Khamenei, and Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, Ahmadinejad’s Chief of Staff and son-in-law. But the interest is still strong. (1) The remaining candidates stick to the basic foundations of the existing power structure (Velayat-e faqih), but their views significantly differ when it comes to details and tactics.
There are two front runners at present – Tehran mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, a moderate conservative, and Saeed Jalili, Islamic radical, who is the Iran's chief nuclear negotiator as Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council. The last one is believed to enjoy the support of ayatollah Khamenei and is viewed as the favorite. For instance, Reza Hojat-Shamami, a member of board, Tehran Eurasia Research Center, predicted a close race between two real heavyweights of Iranian politics. (2) At that, the Supreme Leader was on the fence. According to him, no matter what foreign media said, he had no preference, the winner should be the one who is able to be more effective in tackling the problems of the country. (3)
Unexpectedly the polls indicate the Tehran mayor is leading with 24%. He is the person who enjoys the reputation of being able to effectively tackle the problems of everyday life. Jalili is lagging behind with 20%. Moreover, Ghalibaf is predicted to win in the run-off election with 56% against 27. 5% going to the opponent. Running against Velayati, the capital’s mayor is to win 47% against 28%. In case his opponent is Hoddad Adel, he is to get 55% against 18%. The polls say he will have a major lead running against all other hopefuls. 120 majlis members have already given their support to Ghalibaf. It is worth to know more about him. (4)
Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf was born 23 August 1961. He is a professor and a former military and police commander. He holds a Ph.D. in political geography graduating from Tarbiat Modares University. Ghalibaf had also completed his Airbus pilot training on the following year and began his military career during Iran-Iraq war in 1980. He became chief commander of Imam Redha troops in 1982 and was chief commander of Nasr Troops from 1983 to 1984. After the end of the war, he became Managing-Director of Khatam al-Anbia, an engineering firm controlled by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and was appointed as commander of Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force in 1996 by Ali Khamenei. Four years later, he became chief of the Iranian Police Forces after previous commander was dismissed after 1999 student protests. He was also appointed as Representative of President Mohammad Khatami at campaign to combat smuggling in 2002. He ran for presidency in 2005 presidential election and lost. It was kind of a consolation when two months later he was elected as Tehran's Mayor by City Council of Tehran. Let me note, Ahmadinejad had occupied this position before him. He is also a professor at University of Tehran. The mayor’s position makes him a public figure giving him an advantage to be aptly used. Ghalibaf has managed to become popular with the city dwellers implementing many programs to make the city’s life better. Well-planned and cohesive strategy has made Tehran, the city with the population of 10 million, become more modern and comfortable than the cities of comparable size like Cairo and Istanbul, for instance, or, in some respects, even Moscow, especially talking about auto bans. In 2008 he was added to the nomination list of ‘best world mayor» hopefuls. (5)
A faithful Muslim, but not a radical, he ably finds a balance between state structures and the people eager for reforms. He stands for introduction of innovations and high technology to modernize economy. It’s not an occasion that he is the candidate of Political party called Islamic Society of Engineers. He says he doesn’t believe in populism and fooling people while giving priority to logical, systematic and science based approach. At that, he stands for strong government and staunchly defends the basic pillars of Islamic Republic’s state structure. He is a modern businessman and manager driving his motorcycle to get to the office, quite often he even steers a plane. Talking about the nuclear program talks, he promises to get ahead and achieve progress. As to him, Iran can hold talks with the United States because getting at the round table with the Americans has never been a red line for Iran. . (6)
He calls for reasonable balance between state and private sectors. It can be surmised that his election will speed up privatization. Some estimates make him the best orator among the hopefuls. (7)
As one can see, he can rely on the support of Revolutionary Guards, police, armed forces, national minorities, and the intelligencia living in the capital, as well as emerging middle class. He keeps abreast of times making the image of nationwide politician. Along with fellow runner Ali Akbar Velayati he enjoys the support of the so called Coalition for Progress. The support rendered by Velayati, the third runner, in the run-off election may be decisive.
Liberal Israelis believe if elected Ghalibaf may normalize the bilateral relations because he criticized Ahmadinejad for refusing to acknowledge holocaust. On Ahmadinejad’s statements regarding the Holocaust, Ghalibaf asked, «for instance, where did the case of the Holocaust take us?» He continued, «We were never against Judaism; it’s a religion. What we opposed was Zionism. We’ve been the major supporters of Palestine for 30 years, but with the intelligence of Ayatollahs Khomeini and Khamenei, no one could accuse us of being anti-Semitic. But suddenly without consideration for the results and implications, the issue of the Holocaust was raised. How did his benefit the revolution or the Palestinians?» (8)
At the same time the apprehension is prevalent among politicians that Ahmadinejad leaving the political scene is bad for Israel because it can to large extent set back the global opposition to the nuclear threat. The world may not want to exert strong pressure on a new President of Iran testing his flexibility in the talks with the West. They think there is no significant difference between the reformers and conservatives related to the nuclear issue. (9)
The same views are prevalent in the West. Iran is not backward. To the contrary, the rigid norms supported by ayatollahs don’t stand in the way of boosting the development of modern and diversified economy. It’s not only the adherence to the nuclear program for «peaceful» purposes. Step by step the country makes progress building a diversified economy, including minerals, materials, technologically enhanced production, like cars, aviation, ships, heavy weapons systems, including missiles. Oil refineries are built to substitute exporting raw minerals with oil products. Gradually the country is becoming the absolute regional leader (producing 100 million oil products a year or 40% of overall production). The construction of railways leading to Central Asia and the Transcaucasia is on the way to provide for the shortest possibly access to the sea undermining the expediency of the Great Silk Road project sponsored by the West. The next endeavor to be undertaken is the construction of Mashhad-Great-Dushanbe strategic railway linking Tehran with China across Afghanistan and Tajikistan, the countries with Persian speaking population. The overall transit cargo going through Iran is to increase from the current 10 million to 50 million tons. The development of South Pars, the largest gas condensate field, is on with gas pipelines going to Europe through Iraq and Syria and to India and Pakistan. No doubt the Western sanctions damage the economy to some extent spurring the Tehran’s shift to its neighbors and the Far East and meeting the long-term interests of the West after all.
Whoever wins the election, the policy aimed at Iran becoming an independent and important regional and world politics actor is irreversible. Sometimes Ahmadinejad appeared to be satisfied with the role of troublemaker. Still a new Iranian leader will not be a better interlocutor for the West. Moreover, bringing more authority to the Iranian leadership will only hamper the policy of keeping Iran isolated on the world scene. Having that in mind, the United States rushed to announce the would-be election «undemocratic». But there is no doubt; the White House will have to start a dialogue with the new host of the Tehran’s presidential palace. Iran’s international clout is on the rise.