Iran Election Watch 2013: Saeed Jalili’s concept of “Islamic Civilization” and what it could mean for the election

Saeed Jalili: The Neo-Principalist hardline establishment’s man or one candidate among many?

In much of the expert analysis on the 2013 Iranian presidential election conducted outside of Iran, there continues to be an underestimation of Saeed Jalili and some reticence regarding whether he is really the Neo-Principalist hardline establishment’s candidate. For instance, Iran scholar Farideh Farhi in a recent article has asserted that:

“In his campaign commercials, Jalili has explicitly tried to sell himself as Khamenei’s favorite and in doing so, adeptly used the Western press, which declared him the “frontrunner” on the same day (May 21) the Guardian Council announced the qualified candidates. Jalili achieved this frontrunner designation through an understanding of how foreign press and Diaspora punditry works its way back into Iranian politics…His strategy compelled his competitors and their supporters to publicly state that the pretension of having Khamenei’s support is just that: pretension.”

She also argues that Jalili’s “front-runner” status is belied by election polling which, while not completely reliable, nonetheless appears to indicate that Jalili does not have the most popular support. Farhi, and others who are skeptical of Jalili’s frontrunner status, may be onto something. Much of the non-Iranian media’s speculation about Jalili has not been strongly based in the facts, and indeed there are strong grounds for believing that Jalili does not have appeal beyond the hardline establishment’s base, especially when compared to outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

However, there is perhaps an underestimation of Jalili both as a candidate and in terms of the extent to which the hardline establishment, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, actually supports him. It is certainly true that hardline establishment, particularly Khamenei and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), have not very openly backed any single candidate. Arguably, they have learned from the bitter experience of the 2009 Iranian presidential election and have refrained from backing a single candidate too openly in order both to keep an image of impartiality and to give themselves some flexibility in terms of shifting their support. Even if they feign impartiality however, it would be naive to think that they will remain inactive in terms of the presidential election. The hardline establishment has been sending what we interpret as clear signals to its own base that it favours Jalili. We gave one example of this last week through our analysis of an article in the IRGC’s monthly newsletter “Message of the Revolution” which discussed what the characteristics of the IRGC’s ideal presidential candidate. There is now another signal which, while somewhat subtle, may give further credence to the idea that Jalili is the hardline establishment’s candidate.

Jalili’s concept of “Islamic Civilizaton”

Since Jalili formally entered the presidential election over two weeks ago his use of the concept of “Islamic civilization” has increasingly caught the media’s eye, whether in the live television debates or his campaign speeches, posters, and website. Unpacking this concept at a campaign stop in Ghazvin on 02 June 2013, Jalili argued that in its first three decades the Islamic Republic had established and strengthened its foundations, but that in its fourth decade it was now reaching a “civilization building” phase where it will build a model for the Islamic world to emulate. Directly referencing Khamenei, Jalili declared that: “After the victory of the Islamic Revolution and formation and establishment of the Islamic regime…we have entered the new phase of Islamic civilization building.” Unlike concepts such as the “resistance economy”, which have gained common usage among a number of presidential candidates, Islamic civilization appears to be more or less unique to Jalili.

While Jalilil seems to be the only candidate using this concept, we have seen it before. On 06 February 2013 Brigadier General Yadollah Javani, head of the IRGC’s political affairs bureau, wrote an op-ed in Hamshahri daily newspaper entitled “Now is the time for Islamic Civilization” making essentially the same arguments as Jalili. According to Javani “the nation of Iran must be able to institutionalize pure Islamic thought as a base in the Islamic world so that Muslim nations, regardless of dissimilarities, re-discover their unity around the axis of Islam and move in the direction of forming an Islamic civilization and shift the balance of power in favor of the Islamic world.”

More recently (and perhaps more significantly), overall commander of the Mobilization of the Downtrodden Organization (colloquially known as the Basij) Brigadier General Mohammad-Reza Naghdi made a speech on 06 June 2013 in Amol in which the Islamic civilization concept was strategically inserted. According to Naghdi: “For several centuries after the Renaissance, Western civilization has been dominant. However today its weakness has been proven…So this Western civilization is not capable of replicating because itself and is going toward destruction.” Speaking on Iran’s alternative to Western civilization, Naghdi declared that: “The world is looking for a new way to go, and the most important model before the nations of the world is Islamic civilization.”

The IRGC has both formal and informal mechanisms of influencing presidential elections. The Basij, representing the most well-organized element of the IRGC’s (and hardline establishment’s) social base, is arguably one of the most important informal mechanism for influencing elections. The IRGC can provide guidance to Basij members on how to vote through signals, such as the Islamic civilization concept, by diffusing it through its chain of command. In this way, the IRGC appears to have declared its support for Jalili. However, as we argued last week this support is conditional and may in fact shift to another candidate in the Principalist camp based on the circumstances, including how well Jalili performs as a candidate and whether another Principalist candidate is able to attract mass popular support. As we enter the final days of the election, the field of candidates is likely to become narrower as coalitions are formed and the dynamics of the 14 June vote should become somewhat clearer.