Observations after Friday's third and final Presidential debate, following a conversation with a leading EA correspondent on Iran:
1. THE CONSERVATIVES AND PRINCIPLISTS FALL APART
The immediate headline that the debate was more interesting than the previous two, because of conflict among the eight candidates, does not begin to capture the extent of the division --- notably among those men who supposedly are close to the Supreme Leader's camp.
Our correspondent summarises, "This was a free-for-all in which all went after each other, including the [members of the Supreme Leader's] 2+1 Committee. This showed the three men of the 2+1 do not have anything in common."
One of the 2+1 members, the Supreme Leader's senior advisor Ali Akbar Velayati, criticised the others for not knowing about international affairs, advising them to read his book on the 1980s Iran-Iraq War.
Then Velayati got specific. He said that his colleague on the Committee, leading MP Gholam Ali Haddad Adel, was ignorant about diplomacy.
A heated argument followed with the third member of the 2+1, Tehran Mayor Mohammad-Baqer Qalibaf. Velayati, a long-time Foreign Minister, was boasting about his contacts in the 1980s and 1990s with world leaders like France's Francois Mitterand when Qalibaf snapped, "While you were drinking with Mitterand in the Elysee Palace, we were drinking French missiles on the war front [with Iraq]."
Velayati responded that Qalibaf had no idea re history, as the "drink with Mitterand" came long after the war was over.
Velayati's most interesting clash, however, was with Saeed Jalili, the Secretary of the National Security Council and lead nuclear negotiator.
Velayati went after Jalili over the two rounds of nuclear talks with the 5+1 Powers in February and April. The Supreme Leader's aide indicated a deal was on the table --- with three European countries tabling a proposal that would have suspended three key sanctions on the Islamic Republic --- but Jalili insisted on "all or nothing".
Velayati summarised, "Negotiations is not showing up and moralising with slogans."
2. THE DIVISION AMONG SUPREME LEADER'S INNER CIRCLE OVER NUCLEAR TALKS
The Velayati-Jalili confrontation offers a wider lesson beyond this election. Far from maintaining a unified line against the "West" on the nuclear programme, the Supreme Leader's advisors have been split for years over the approach. Velayati has been among the advisors seeking an accommodation, but --- at least in his account --- has been blocked by others who have refused to conclude a deal.
In another telling passage in the debate, Velayati said that a settlement was imminent in talks in 2007 between the head of the European Union, Javier Solana, and Iran's Ali Larijani --- now Speaker of Parliament --- but this was undermined by someone, presumably President Ahmadinejad, in a speech objecting to any agreement.
Our correspondent summarises:
This display really weakened Iran's hand in the nuclear negotiations.
Imagine if you are a member of the 5+1 watching this debate. You have one faction around Ayatollah Khamenei ready to talk, but you have another refusing.
With the inner circle very divided, you don't budge --- you wait for them to crack.
3. CAN THE SUPREME LEADER RESCUE THE SITUATION?
One obvious "solution" for this division is for the regime to decide on an outcome for the first-round ballot on 14 June and then make sure it happens. In the words of our correspondent, "The elephant in the room is whether the votes which are cast are the votes which wind up in ballot box."
Specifically, our correspondent --- who has been far from impressed from Saeed Jalili, on the campaign trail or in yesterday's debate --- believes that there is no way he can be among the top two vote-getters if turnout is high. So, "if Jalili is put through to the final round in a ballot with at least 60% participation, you can bet there has been manipulation."
But, if this is being considered by the Supreme Leader's camp, there is a major problem in comparison with the 2009 election. Then, it was only a question of ensuring that a single candidate --- President Ahmadinejad --- triumphed against the opposition.
This time, it is a matter of picking one or two candidates from among four --- Velayati, Haddad Adel, Qalibaf, and Jalili --- to go to the final ballot on 28 June. That step is likely to only increase division among conservatives and principlists, with resentment among the followers of those who are not chosen.
An alternative for the Supreme Leader is to sit on his hands at this point and not express any preference, waiting to see who is strongest in the first-round ballot. There is precedent for this: Ayatollah Khamenei did not go for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad until late in the 2005 campaign, tapping him over Qalibaf.
This time, however, waiting carries the risk that the squabbling amongst those around the Supreme Leader will only get worse, shaking an already fragile election process.
4. CAN THE MODERATES AND REFORMISTS TAKE ADVANTAGE?
The failure to find a "unity" candidate has opened up space for the two men who are not as close to the Supreme Leader --- "moderate" Hassan Rouhani, an ally of former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, and reformist Mohammad Reza Aref.
The prospect of one of the two men making it to the final round --- almost unthinkable when Rafsanjani was barred from standing in the election --- is now real. While Rouhani did not capitalise on his recent surge in yesterday's debate, Aref was sharp. Our correspondent assesses, "He was sharp and did not shy away from the reformist legacy. If the election is not manipulated, that could bring support, especially among younger voters."
Reallistically, however, the best chance for Rouhani or Aref to be in the top two on 14 June is for one man to withdraw in favour of the other before the vote. Will that happen?
Our correspondent speaks bluntly:
That will only happen if former Presidents Mohammad Khatami and Rafsanjani call publicly for a coalition.
If they do so, then we may have something special in this campaign.