Staunch anti-American Saeed Jalili an early favorite in Iran’s presidential race

May 22, 2013

Iran's top nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili attends a press conference at the Iranian consulate in Istanbul. (OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images)

Now that Iranian authorities have disqualified former president Hasmei Rafsanjani from the coming presidential race, one of the candidates who appears to be emerging as an early favorite is Saeed Jalili, the country's lead nuclear negotiator. Inflexible, ideological and a close ally of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, he is far from a shoe-in but appears, at the moment, to be a potential front-runner.

“Khamenei is watching carefully to see how the candidates do, how they present themselves, who does and who doesn’t gain traction,” Brookings analyst Suzanne Maloney told the Los Angeles Times. “But my interpretation is that he would favor the nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili.”

Though a candidate's rhetoric is of course an imperfect predictor of how they might behave in office, Jalili has time and again shown himself to be a staunch critic of the United States, an advocate of strict or confrontational foreign policy and, apparently, a strong believer that Iran is on the right path.

"Iran has managed to break the imposing stature of American," he told the Christian Science Monitor in a lengthy interview. In this and other interviews, Jalili has appeared almost obsessed with the United States, emphasizing the conflict as both a moral struggle and one in which Iran is already winning. "The Iranian nation’s behavior over the past 34 years shows that the U.S. cannot do whatever it wants," he told the Financial Times.

Jalili often portrays the United States as on the brink of defeat, despite the crippling sanctions that are driving up inflation and battering the Iranian middle class. "The fact that the Iranian nation is defending their rights makes [the United States] hopeless. Today they are witnessing Iran’s eye-catching progress, thanks to [Iranian] resistance,” Jalili said at a recent press conference, according to the Christian Science Monitor.

Though his formal role is as a negotiator and diplomat, Jalili has discouraged the possibility of negotiating with the United States, insisting that all fault lies with the Americans. He told the Financial Times that "It is not true" that Iran would need to negotiate directly with the United States to resolve the nuclear standoff. "We have never waited to see what U.S. conditions for [direct] talks are. The problem is America’s behavior. It has to change. ... The main problem is that the US is not logical."

“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.”

North Korea is always a dangerously extreme comparison to make, but Jalili's repeated insistance that Iran is in a constant state of victory over the United States, but that it must also accept some economic hardship as a cost of ongoing struggle, carries uncanny parallels to official ideology under North Korean leaders Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un.

Ironically, but perhaps earnestly, Jalili has also lectured the United States for its support of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and its opposition to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Though neither leader took power democratically, Jalili argues that Iranian ally Assad is a legitimate ruler but Iranian opponent Mubarak was not. He told the Monitor: “The U.S. should tell the world what it wants to do: to continue to confront free nations, or support dictators?” Judging regional leaders by their stance toward Iran is unsurprising, of course, but such a transparently inconsistent and self-serving view does not seem to augur well for his foreign policy.

The Washington Post's Jason Rezaian reports that, according to some analysts, Jalili's "inflexible negotiating style is considered a main reason that international talks over Iran’s nuclear program have not yielded better results." Jalili, Rezaian notes, has emphasized "resistance" as a basic premise of the country's nuclear strategy, apparently promising "continuation of a status quo that many Iranians believe ignores the struggles of the country."

He did hint at Iran's economic hardship when talking with the Monitor, saying that, because of U.S.-led sanctions, "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." Still, he told the Financial Times, "at least over the past few years when I have been carefully following the effects of sanctions, I see that they can be easily bypassed and turned into opportunities."

Even before be took the job of nuclear negotiator, Jalili appeared to believe and follow his own rhetoric. The Christian Science Monitor profile, written by Scott Peterson, carried this detail:

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.

That infamous letter, which you can read in full here, seemed the exact opposite of diplomacy, haranguing Bush on a variety issues and declaring that "liberalism and Western-style democracy ... have failed." Its eighth and final page begins, in a line that was meant for the United States but can be read very differently, "History tells us that repressive and cruel governments do not survive."

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