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Said Jalili: Iran's Rising Political Star

  • Golnaz Esfandiari

Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, Said Jalili, is being tipped by some as the country's future president.

Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, Said Jalili, is being tipped by some as the country's future president.

At only 47 years of age, Iran's top nuclear negotiator Said Jalili has already held several key posts in the Iranian government.

The former member of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), who lost his right leg in the 1980-88 war with Iraq, is currently the secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, which means he handles his country's most important foreign-policy dossier: negotiating with Western countries as the personal representative of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Observers believe that Khamenei's deep trust in Jalili could soon push him further up the country's political ladder.

There are already signs that the scene is being set for Jalili's progress.

In recent weeks, hard-line bloggers have launched an online campaign for Jalili to run as a presidential candidate in the 2013 vote. The effort comes amid an increase in stories in state media portraying Jalili as a hardworking, pious man who leads a modest lifestyle.

For Iranian analyst Shahram Rafizadeh, this is a case of deja vu. "There is a focus on Jalili within the ruling establishment," he says. "It is similar to the focus on [Iran's President Mahmud Ahmadinejad] between 2003 and 2005 -- there was a similar trend and it seems that it is being repeated with Jalili."

Khamenei's Man

Jalili's rise on Iran's political scene began in 2001, when he moved from being a junior government official to become director-general of the office of the supreme leader.

In 2005, a newly elected Ahmadinejad appointed him deputy foreign minister for European and American affairs.

Then, in a surprise move in 2007, Ahmadinejad appointed Jalili to be Iran's top nuclear negotiator. The move was criticized by many who believed Jalili lacked the necessary experience.

Those days are long gone. The trilingual Jalili -- he speaks Persian, English, and Arabic -- is now widely praised for his uncompromising stance on Iran's nuclear program, his "revolutionary and Islamic" approach, and the way in which he handled several rounds of negotiations with the international community "with strength and wisdom."

A group of Revolutionary Guards commanders and Khamenei representatives in the IRGC reportedly urged Jalili to prepare for a run in the 2013 presidential election, according to an October 2011 report on the news site Roozonline, which quoted an "informed official."

Jalili is considered a true devotee of Khamenei, and is known for doing his utmost to fulfill the Iranian leader's wishes. According to Rafizadeh, these are two characteristics that make him a good candidate for president in Khamenei's eyes. The supreme leader has a record of clipping the wings of people who oppose him even slightly.

Khamenei "doesn't want to give the government to someone who may be at odds with him," he says. "Between the few available choices before Khamenei, Jalili is the one known for pure obedience to him. That strengthens the probability that he could run for office."

Ahmadinejad Sidelined

Former Iranian diplomat Hossein Alizadeh suggests that Jalili's rise has been at least partly helped by the sidelining of Ahmadinejad from Iran's political scene over a power struggle with Khamenei.

"The former lead soldier has been lost," he says. "Therefore, a new figure has emerged. Since the Istanbul talks, [Jalili] is being referred to as Khamenei's representative, but I believe even before that, Jalili was Khamenei's representative. He would manage the talks with Khamenei's blessing."

Jalili reportedly held a long meeting with Khamenei before April's nuclear talks in Istanbul during which -- according to a lawmaker with knowledge of the matter --the two discussed Iran's "scenario" for the talks.

Meanwhile, there have been unconfirmed reports on Iranian news sites suggesting that Ahmadinejad's team is feeling threatened by Jalili and trying to undermine him.

A Tehran-based journalist told RFE/RL on condition of anonymity that Jalili's future was all but certain. "Consider him the next president, if conditions remain the same," the journalist said.

Jalili has said nothing publicly about reports speculating on his relationship with Ahmadinejad or suggestions that he may run for president.

Alizadeh doesn't believe Jalili has made a decision. "The truth is he is not a prominent figure among other personalities who could stand," he said.

He also thinks the online Jalili campaign is part of an attempt by the Iranian regime to create excitement for the next presidential vote. He says the establishment needs a high voter turnout to claim legitimacy.

So far only Mohsen Rezai, a former IRGC commander who ran and lost against Ahmadinejad in 2009, has suggested that he might run in next year's presidential vote.

The 2013 vote will be the first presidential vote since the June 2009 election, which led to mass antigovernment street protests.

Opposition activists around the world have been marking the third anniversary of the protests, and remembering those who were killed in the crackdown.

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