The decision by a leading clerical organisation to back Ali Akbar Velayati for the coming presidential election has boosted the chances of the veteran diplomat to become the next head of government.

Mr. Velayati’s endorsement by the Qom Seminary Scholars Association on Saturday could result in a tighter race with Saeed Jalili, Iran’s chief negotiator on the nuclear issue. Mr. Jalili is campaigning for the revival of revolutionary values and Iran’s path to success on its own terms.

The two contenders belonging to the conservative camp do not disagree much on fortifying Iran on revolutionary principles but tactical differences between them on achieving this goal are stark. Compared to Mr. Jalili, Mr. Velayati — who served as Foreign Minister for 16 years — advocates a more imaginative approach on engaging with the West on the nuclear issue and the removal of sanctions that have been inflicting considerable pain on the people of Iran.

In a live televised debate on Friday, Mr. Velayati slammed Mr. Jalili for failing to steer the nuclear dialogue with the West to Iran’s advantage. In turn, he flaunted his own credentials as Foreign Minister to suggest that his life-time experience as a diplomat would enable him to achieve better results. “The current negotiations that are under way are definitely flawed,” said Mr. Velayati.

In Qom, Mr. Velayati was backed by the group led by Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, a former head of the judiciary. Yet, Mr. Yazdi’s group is not the only game in town. On the contrary, most of the political tendencies in Iran find their reflection among the clerical bodies in Qom. For instance, the Combatant Clergy Association (CCA) represents another set of conservative clerics. The reformists too have their supporters among the clerics. Neither the CCA nor the pro-reform clerics have yet declared their candidate for the election. Analysts point out that Mohammad-Taqi Mesbah Yazdi, a highly influential cleric maybe supporting Mr. Jalili, bolstering his chances in the presidential race.

Mr. Jalili’s fate could also depend on the direction in which the Iran’s 10 million strong paramilitary Basij vote. Candidates who do not have the clear support of the Basij, and its parent organisation, the elite Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC), as well as an influential section of the clergy usually have a tough time in the presidential poll.

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