x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Iran's next president will likely deliver a diplomatic makeover

In a lively third and final televised debate on foreign policy on Friday night, several of the candidates agreed that Iran needs to repair its image abroad. Michael Theodoulou reports

Presidential candidates from right, Mohammad Gharazi, Mohammad Reza Aref, Saeed Jalili, Ali Akbar Velayati, Gholam Ali Haddad Adel, Hasan Rowhani, Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf and Mohsen Rezaei, square off in a debate last week in Tehran. Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, Mehdi Dehghan / AP Photo
Presidential candidates from right, Mohammad Gharazi, Mohammad Reza Aref, Saeed Jalili, Ali Akbar Velayati, Gholam Ali Haddad Adel, Hasan Rowhani, Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf and Mohsen Rezaei, square off in a debate last week in Tehran. Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, Mehdi Dehghan / AP Photo

TEHRAN // Whoever wins Iran's presidential election on Friday, the country is likely to have a less controversial image once Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who revelled in his role of global provocateur, is out of office.

His successor may prove as hardline - or even more so - but will not be saddled by the outgoing president's toxic reputation in western capitals.

Indeed, most of the eight carefully vetted candidates hoping to succeed Mr Ahmadinejad are fellow conservatives, fully committed to Iran's nuclear programme and Tehran's support for Bashar Al Assad's regime in Syria, the Islamic republic's most vital ally.

But most have also accused Mr Ahmadinejad of recklessly antagonising the West and damaging Iran's interests with inflammatory rhetoric, in particular with his repeated denials of the Holocaust.

In a lively third and final televised debate on foreign policy on Friday night, several of the candidates agreed that Iran needs to repair its image abroad and pursue better relations in the region and the wider international community.

"We need to get away from extremism," said Hassan Rowhani, a moderate. Ali Akbar Velayati, a conservative, agreed: "We need to improve our relations with the rest of the world."

The supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, makes the final decisions on foreign and nuclear policy but the president is the public face of the country.

Foreign policy matters to Iranian voters because much of their current economic misery stems from international sanctions imposed over Tehran's nuclear drive.

In Friday's debate, Iran's top nuclear negotiator and a hardline presidential hopeful, Saeed Jalili, came under blistering attack by rival candidates over his handling of deadlocked nuclear talks with six world powers, including the United States.

Mr Velayati, a former foreign minister, told him: "What we are seeing, Mr Jalili, is that you have not gone forward even one step and the pressure of sanctions still exists.

"The art of diplomacy is to preserve our nuclear rights, not to see sanctions increase."

Mr Rowhani, Iran's chief nuclear negotiator under the reformist former president, Mohammad Khatami, chipped in: "It is good to have centrifuges running, provided people's lives and livelihoods are also running."

Mr Jalili, the presumed presidential front-runner because of his closeness to Mr Khamenei, defended his record, insisting his policy of "resistance" against western countries was more successful than that of earlier, more moderate negotiators.

Their conciliatory strategy, he said, not only failed to deter foreign threats but encouraged the US to include Iran in an "axis of evil".

The heated debate provided a rare insight into the deep fissures at the highest levels of Iran's hierarchy about how to proceed with the nuclear programme.

The ructions in particular between Mr Jalili and Mr Velayati, who are both close to Ayatollah Khamenei, could weaken Iran's hand when nuclear negotiations resume with the six world powers, analysts said.

"They will see a divided Iranian regime, with one Khamenei faction willing to talk and another refusing," said Scott Lucas, an Iran expert at Birmingham University in England.

"With Iran's inner circle divided, the West won't budge. It will wait for Iran to crack."

Mr Lucas said that Mr Jalili, who is an "ideologue rather than a populist like Mr Ahmadinejad", could prove more problematic for the West than the outgoing president, who at times appeared ready to cut a nuclear deal.

Mr Jalili's insistence on "resistance" as the focus of Tehran's nuclear strategy is seen as the continuation of a status quo that many Iranians believe ignores the difficulties facing their country. But his unyielding stance will play well with regime hardliners.

Mr Jalili insisted on Friday that there were fundamental differences between the foreign policies of Iran and Washington on many issues, notably in regard to Israel.

"Commitment to the Zionist regime is a fundamental principle of America's foreign policy," he said. "Not recognising the Zionist regime is a principle of our foreign policy."

But Mr Jalili did not predict Israel's demise, as Mr Ahmadinejad did on several occasions, nor deny the Holocaust.

Some Iran experts doubt Tehran's foreign policy can ever change while Ayatollah Khamenei retains absolute authority. Mistrust of the West, and the US in particular, is hard-wired into his DNA.

He warned the presidential candidates last week against making any concessions to the West, insisting this would not ease tensions over Iran's nuclear programme. The anger of Iran's enemies, the ayatollah insisted, stems for their opposition to the Islamic republic's existence.

mtheodoulou@thenational.ae