TEHRAN, Iran – Iranians have seen it before: A youngish presidential candidate firing up crowds with fist-waving rants against the West, then displaying his Islamist bona fides with courtesy calls to hard-line clerics.
Saeed Jalili, familiar to outsiders because of his prominence as a nuclear negotiator, has tried to distance himself from outgoing president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has fallen out with the clerical leadership that controls Iran. But he is employing the same strategy that worked for Ahmadinejad eight years ago — and in the murky world of Iranian politics, where there are no credible polls and elections are a highly controlled affair, it has made him, for many, the presumed front-runner.
"No compromise! No submission!" shouted supporters at rallies this week that had men in front and women segregated in the back.
Perhaps more than any of the other seven candidates allowed to run by the clerics, Jalili presents a riddle: A negotiator who seems to dislike give-and-take; an opponent of international outreach who nonetheless noted in a 2006 interview that Iran's "big question" is whether it can ever restore relations with Washington.
The answer, judging by his statements ahead of the June 14 vote, may be: Not necessarily.
"I'm opposed to detente," he declared at one campaign stop. "The principle for us is to counter threats — not rapprochement. We have to implement the discourse of resistance in society."
In an attempt to showcase his piety, Jalili traveled to the seminary city of Qom, where he respectfully adjusted a microphone Wednesday for Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi, once considered the spiritual mentor of Ahmadinejad. A day later, he told a women's gathering to shun Western ways and embrace motherhood as their "core identity."
Iran has no credible voter polling to handicap the candidates, but there is a sense of momentum behind Jalili. He is clearly popular with the ruling clerics who hand-pick the ballot list and faced widespread accusations of vote rigging four years ago to keep Ahmadinejad in power.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei claims to remain neutral, yet has repeated similar messages that reject any major concessions on Iran's nuclear ambition or support for key regional allies including Syria's Bashar Assad and the Hezbollah militant group in Lebanon. The powerful Ayatollah Yazdi — a member of the Assembly of Experts, the only group capable of ousting the supreme leader — backs Jalili as well.
Among the public, Jalili is admired as a "living martyr" for losing part of his right leg in the 1980s war against Saddam Hussein's Iraq, then backed by the United States, which left him with a noticeable limp that lends enormous status.
The 47-year-old Jalili — who looks older with his white hair and beard — was the clerics' trusted point man during years of fruitless nuclear negotiations. While the clerics — not the president — set major policies such as foreign relations and nuclear, a Jalili presidency would align with an unyielding approach in possible nuclear talks with the U.S. and other world powers after the election. Four rounds since last year have made almost no headway.
The West believes Iran is seeking to develop atomic weapons, although Tehran denies that.
The establishment-friendly slate suggests the regime used its candidate-vetting powers to ensure a comfortable outcome rather than risk allowing reformists to regroup under former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who was stunningly cut from the race by election overseers.
"This election is all about the regime looking for security and predictability," said Sami al-Faraj, director of the Kuwait Center for Strategic Studies. "It's about no surprises."
For outsiders, one surprise might be that at this point — with inconvenient candidates removed — there is something of a real campaign underway, with the outcome far from certain. There is the possibility of rival candidates uniting, or moderates creating some reformist momentum by backing someone.
"Much will depend on candidates dropping off and making alliances rather than all of them battling on their own for votes," said Mehrzad Boroujerdi, director of the Middle East Studies program at Syracuse University.
The Iranian presidency's main mandate is shepherding the domestic economy, which has been battered by a combination of Ahmadinejad's free-spending and international sanctions over Tehran's nuclear program. This could become a weak spot for Jalili, a former diplomat and adviser who has never held elected office or dealt with a budget.
"He talks in vacuum. He speaks about dreams rather than real issues. He vaguely talks of resistance, but has nothing to offer about high inflation and Iran's international isolation," said Tehran-based political analyst Sadeq Zibakalam. "Jalili is a new version of Ahmadinejad. You only need to cut Ahmadinejad's words in 2005 and paste them into Jalili's speeches."
It's a curious strategy, considering that Ahmadinejad is exiting as an outcast: he became unpopular with the clerics after his failed attempt to challenge the near-absolute authority of Khamenei.
Most candidates have avoided Ahmadinejad-style bombast on the assumption that Iranians are more interested in saving the economy than ideological battles with the West. But Jalili is betting otherwise, adopting the firebrand part of Ahmadinejad's legacy while leaving out the disruptive power struggles.
"We believe Iran's position during (Ahmadinejad's) era was strengthened," said a leaflet distributed by Jalili's campaign office. "The poor and deprived masses were given attention, revolutionary values saw growth . Yet there were weaknesses that we won't neglect."
A product of the theocracy's grooming process, Jalili became a senior policy adviser in Khamenei's office in 2001 after a decade as a university lecturer, often discussing his doctoral thesis that explored foreign policy and Islamic values. He later was deputy foreign minister for European and American Affairs and was named Iran's lead nuclear negotiator in 2007.
Despite his uncompromising style, he broke form famously in 2009 for a lunchtime chat at a Swiss villa with then-U.S. Under Secretary of State William Burns — the first publicly acknowledged face-to-face meeting between Iranian and American envoys since relations were severed after the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
"Shouldn't the country's top nuclear negotiator concentrate on his responsibilities rather than run for president?" said a commentary by the conservative news website, alef.ir, which speculated that Iran's position at talks could be weakened if Jalili is elected and a new team is put in place.
A possible game changer would be a three-candidate pact between Ali Akbar Velayati, a senior adviser to Khamenei, Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher and parliamentarian Gholam Ali Haddad Adel. Each has promised to give key posts to the others should he win, and a joint bid could be strong.
Two former presidents seen as relative moderates — Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami — also hold important cards. They could make an all-out push behind one of the two longshot reform-leaning candidates, mostly likely former nuclear negotiator Hasan Rowhani.
Either way, few expect a repeat of 2009, when claims of election-rigging sparked mass protests that were brutally put down by police and paramilitary groups. The opposition says more than 80 demonstrators were killed, while the government puts the number at 30. Mir Hossein Mousavi, who claims to have been the real victor in the 2009 vote, is still under house arrest. And years of relentless arrests and pressures have left opposition groups dispirited and in disarray.
Murphy reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.