Whomever Iranians pick in today's presidential election, and regardless of whether or not their votes are accurately counted, the winner will not be in charge of the country's controversial nuclear program or its foreign policy. Those are controlled by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. But the nuclear issue and its ramifications are being debated more openly in this election than you might think and are, presumably, on voters' minds as they head to the polls. Who they choose might give some insights into how Iranians feel about the nuclear development carried out in their name.
The candidate who has most emphasized confrontation over compromise on the nuclear issue is Saeed Jalili, the country's lead nuclear negotiator and a staunch hard-liner who is thought to be Khamenei's preferred candidate. As a nuclear negotiator, Jalili has refused to compromise and stonewalled Western efforts to reach an agreement. As a candidate, he's said not only that Iran should refuse to compromise with the West but that it is in fact winning against the foreign powers, its strategy of stubborn resistance successful. And some people in Iran seem to share that view.
“Open your eyes,” one 20-something Iranian man told a friend who was considering another candidate, according to Washington Post correspondent Jason Rezaian's report from Tehran. “Everything we have now is because of Jalili and his courage.”
That Jalili supporter might be more right than he knows. It would be overly simplistic to reduce all of Iran's problems to a single issue, but the country's refusal to budge on its nuclear program and the crippling international sanctions that has invited play a big role. Those policies are ultimately decided by Khamenei but Jalili had been a key player in implementing them. Partly as a result, run-away inflation is devastating the middle class, prices on basic necessities are rising and the Iranian health-care system could soon be in crisis.
Jalili, meanwhile, is calling for status quo on the nuclear policy, a refusal to compromise with Western powers and a "resistance economy" that espouses self-sufficiency but has demonstrated little actual success. When the Jalili supporter said they owed "everything we have" to him, he hit, probably unintentionally, on the degree to which Iranians owe much of their economic and social pains, if not to Jalili directly, then to the confrontational policies he has helped to champion.
Why would Iranian voters support Jalili? New York Times correspondent Thomas Erdbrink found some of his supporters who told him they "don't care about the economy, but care about pure Islam." Jalili has declared during the campaign, "People should be ready to sacrifice everything for the discourse of pure Islam." In Iran, celebrating "pure Islam" is as much about the country's revolutionary nationalism as it is about Islam itself, an official ideology that includes the same "resistance" motivating the nuclear program.
Still, Jalili does not appear to be particularly popular. A recent poll showed him as the third-most popular candidate with modest 13.9 percent support. As Erdbrink tweeted from Tehran, "Not too many saying they voted for nuclear negotiator Jalili. Many in Tehran say they fear his hard-line stance." And The Post's Rezaian talked to a Web designer who said he'd decided his vote based on the candidate most likely to defeat Jalili.
If Jalili wins, then we can infer that either the polls were wrong, turnout was wildly one-sided in his favor or, perhaps most likely, Khamenei or one of his offices intervened in the election in Jalili's favor. But Iranians can expect that a President Jalili, however he might get to office, would likely bring their country more of the resistance economy and pure Islam that has already bestowed them with international isolation and inflation as high as 110 percent.