TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Just hours after Iran's presidential candidates bickered over nuclear policies during a televised debate, the country's foreign minister stepped in with a comment of his own: Nothing will change regardless of the winner.
It's a political fact of life in Iran, where the president is squarely on the world stage but holds little power to sway key policies such as Tehran's nuclear development or relations with the West. Yet as the six candidates — including a current and former nuclear negotiator — wrapped up their campaigns Wednesday, perhaps no issues define their immediate challenges more than the nuclear standoff with Washington and its allies and the related economic sanctions strangling Iran's economy.
The overall decisions are firmly in the hands of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the hugely powerful Revolutionary Guard. That message was reinforced after the final presidential debate last week when Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi thanked the candidates for their "perspectives" but noted they "will not impact Iran's foreign policy after the election."
What Iran's next president can potentially influence, however, is the tone and tactics with world powers if stalemated nuclear talks resume at some point after a successor is picked for the firebrand President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The stakes could rise quickly. Negotiations had been put on hold until after Friday's election, but pressure could mount to resume the talks even before the new president-elect officially takes over in August. The next round would mark a crossroads: Either show progress or risk escalating calls by some in Israel and the West for military action.
"With the nuclear program, it's about style over substance for Iran's president," said Sami al-Faraj, director of the Kuwait Center for Strategic Studies. "He can't direct policy, but can help package it by offering their views to the supreme leader. The nuclear talks are the main forum for this."
One side is current nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili, who publicly endorses a hardline stance that demands the West make the first move with major concessions such as lifting painful sanctions. "Our country won't surrender to their demands," Jalili was quoted as saying last week.
Another view comes from reformist-backed candidate Hasan Rowhani, Iran's chief nuclear envoy from 2003-2005, who complains that Iran's combative style has worked against the country.
"It's very good to see (nuclear) centrifuges rotating, but only when people could make ends meet and when factories and industry could run smoothly," Rowhani said in the debate Saturday. "All our problems are because all efforts were not made to prevent the (nuclear) dossier from being sent to the (U.N.) Security Council."
Another presumed leading candidate, Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, has given general support for Iran's nuclear policies but has not made clear what strategies he would suggest for future talks with the U.S. and others.
But no candidate strays from Iran's core stance that it must have full control over nuclear technology, including the ability to enrich its own fuel. The West and its allies fear the uranium enrichment is a path to a nuclear weapon. Iran insists it seeks nuclear reactors for energy and medical applications only, citing a 2005 religious edict by Khamenei saying nuclear arms violate the principles of Islam.
Iran sees its nuclear program as a national imperative. Iranian leaders portray nuclear advancements — along with the country's aerospace and defense industries — as major strides toward their self-proclaimed role as technological leaders of the Islamic world. It's also one of the few policies that unite Iran's deeply divided society, linking liberals and hardliners in support of Iran's nuclear achievements.
Foreign Minister Salehi acknowledged the "tactics and methods" may shift in Iran's efforts for its "nuclear rights."
"But the country's principled stance — peaceful use of nuclear technology within our obligations — is unchangeable," he was quoted by the semiofficial ISNA news agency as saying last week.
Nuclear talks were revived last year between Iran and a six-nation group, the permanent U.N. Security Council members plus Germany. But four rounds of negotiations and other sideline meetings have made no significant headway.
Negotiations have been suspended until Iran's new president is known, angering some conservatives in the U.S. and Israel who claim that Iran only seeks to buy time to further its nuclear objectives. President Barack Obama and other Western leaders, however, remain publicly committed to diplomat efforts though they stress military options are not off the table.
Tehran-based political analyst Hamid Reza Shokouhi speculated the impasse may remain if the presidency goes to Jalili, who is widely believed to have the support of Khamenei and others in the ruling theocracy. "Jalili speaks of resistance," he said. "If he is at the head of the government, the deadlock will continue."
Rowhani, however, could nudge Iran's ruling clerics toward a more give-and-take approach, he said.
"He handled Iran's nuclear dossier a decade ago for two years. No sanctions were imposed on Iran when he was in charge," said Shokouhi. "The world knows Rowhani as a person who, based on his background, is seeking interaction with the West, and this could automatically change the game."
Khamenei has offered some hints of flexibility. In March, he suggested that direct talks with Washington could be considered if the U.S. took steps to roll back sanctions, which have targeted Iran's vital oil industry and pushed Iran out of international banking networks.
New U.S. measures set to take effect July 1 could bring further blows to Iran's economy by seeking to block gold sales — a crucial import to boost Iran's depleted treasury — and cut off "significant transactions" in the Iranian rial in attempts to make the national currency virtually worthless outside Iran. Already, the rial has lost more than half of its value in the past year. Inflation stands at over 30 percent and unemployment is officially reported at more than 14 percent, but many economists believe the true figure is much higher.
The economic pressures could eventually be the tipping point to force more deal-making by Iran, said Dalia Dassa Kaye, director of the Center for Middle East Public Policy at the Rand Corp., a think tank in Washington that receives U.S. funding.
"I don't think it's a done deal that the Iranians, even if a hardliner like Jalili wins ... won't play ball," she said. "I don't think it's a lost cause for the prospects for diplomacy."
A failure to make quick progress could also revive calls to abandon the effort and look to military strategies despite the risks of opening a conflict that could spill over into the Gulf and send oil prices skyrocketing and put Israel in the cross-hairs through Iran's proxy force, Hezbollah in Lebanon, which is already in battle form in Syria.
"Once this election is over and settled," said Kaye, "there's going to be renewed pressure — particularly from Israel but also from several within the U.S. — for renewed calls for military action if the negotiations are not showing they will lead to concrete results."
Murphy reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.