Finding Khamenei's Favorite to Succeed Ahmadinejad

Posted: 31st May 2013

The election field for Iran’s next president initially stood 686 hopeful candidates wide. The country’s Guardian Council last week narrowed that field down to just 8 final candidates in preparation for the June 14 election that will determine current President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s successor.

The term “hardliners” has been pervasive in much mainstream Western coverage describing the candidates although anticipating a winner (or even a frontrunner) appears to be difficult at this stage. Some have recently called Saeed Jalili, Secretary of Supreme National Security Council, the leading candidate, but we want to scour the broader media discussion for any patterns. In particular, we’ll use data captured and organized from around the web by Recorded Future to answer:

  • Which candidate has been most frequently mentioned with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in global media?
  • Which candidate has been most frequently mentioned with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in global media?

Finding Khamenei’s Favorite

Despite claiming to have no preferred candidate, Khamenei was influential in selecting the field and claims close ties to several of the individuals running for president. One approach to spot a potential favorite would be to see which of the eight candidates has been most frequently mentioned with the current Supreme Leader in online media. We used web intelligence to generate the above timeline of March 1 – June 14 (election day) to determine the top three most mentioned candidates as:

  • Ali Akbar Velayati – current senior advisor on international affairs to Khamenei. His call for ‘reconciliation with the world‘ in the first debate today will likely contrast with more standoffish positions as the campaigns proceed.
  • Mohammed Bagher Ghalibaf – Tehran’s current mayor, and occasionally described as a more ‘moderate’ candidate while simultaneously taking credit for crackdowns on student protests.
  • Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel – top advisor to Khamenei whose daughter is also married to one Khamenei’s sons.

This “top” list perhaps illustrates why it’s difficult to call out one candidate as Khamenei’s favorite; the ties are deep across the board. And we can note that Saeed Jalili only recently started to bubble up in comparison to the top three.

Interestingly, the top three candidates most frequently referred to alongside Khamenei months ago formed what is called the 2+1 Coalition with the expectation that only the frontrunner will be on the ballot come election day. Whoever comes out on top, Khamenei wins, but rumors are already having to be squashed that Velayati, who is most linked to Khamenei by the media, will represent the coalition.

A Quick Comparison to Ahmadinejad

This perspective is interesting given our understanding of the deep ties between Khamenei and certain candidates, the Guardian Council’s role in selecting final participants, and the falling out between Ahmadinejad and Guardian Council that culminated with the president’s recent criticism.

The first thing that stands out is a much lower volume of references to the candidates in relationship to Ahmadinejad versus those to Khamenei. Perhaps not surprising. And many of these references are simply noting the candidates as potential successors to the current president. The top name related to Ahmadinejad:

  • Hassan Rowhani – former nuclear negotiator and widely describe as the most moderate candidate in the field. The broad set of mentions alongside the exiting president are largely related to Rowhani’s criticism of Ahmadinejad. In 2009, Rowhani publicly labeled Ahmadinejad a ‘demagogue‘ and consistently hit out against the president since he took office in 2005.

The approval of Rowhani as one of the final eight candidates given his relatively distant connection to Khamenei and less “hardline” stance  is interesting. One take: Khamenei may not view Rowhani as a serious contender but instead see a PR opportunity with the expectation that his campaign will unload a full clip of criticism against the exiting Ahmadinejad.

Next Steps

We’re currently two weeks away from election day in Iran. We’ll follow up this analysis with a media comparison of how the candidates are being discussed in US, UK, and Iranian media respectively. We’ll be pushing these findings early next week after commentators have several days to digest and respond to the first public debate from today. Get a teaser of the Iranian media coverage via Recorded Future.