By Jon Hemming
DUBAI (Reuters) - Steadfastly loyal to Iran's supreme leader, Saeed Jalili has taken a tough line with the West as chief nuclear negotiator and is now a leading contender in the June 14 presidential election with a slick campaign and pledges to fix the faulty economy.
With two prominent, more pragmatic candidates disqualified from running, the race is now dominated by conservative hardliners true to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Though there is no clear front-runner in a country without reliable opinion polls, among the three high-profile conservatives still standing, Jalili may be nosing ahead. Given what analysts say is Khamenei's determination to see a firm loyalist back in the presidency, it is likely that one of them will win, defeating the sole moderate contender.
Since his appointment as chief nuclear negotiator in 2007, Jalili has overseen a hardening of Iran's position in talks with world powers who believe Tehran may be seeking to develop a nuclear weapons capability. Iran denies the accusation.
Khamenei, the clerical supreme leader, tightly controls policy on the nuclear stand-off, foreign affairs and security matters. So any new president could probably bring only a change of nuance or style in Iran's fraught relations with the West.
Though criticized even by other conservative candidates for inflexibility in the nuclear talks, Jalili has rejected any softening of approach. His election as president would reinforce political resistance to a nuclear compromise.
Khamenei has, however, largely left economic policy to his presidents. With tough international sanctions biting ever harder, rescuing the staggering economy is probably the top issue for most voters and Jalili has made it his No. 1 priority.
"(The) most important objective for next president may be the country's economy. He should have a serious plan," Jalili wrote on his Twitter account.
As well as live tweeting from rallies and interviews, the Jalili campaign is active online with blogs, videos, a number of web sites and a big social media presence - factors which helped mobilize opposition reformist supporters in 2009.
Still, with residents reporting Internet speeds slowing to a snail's pace ahead of the vote - possibly a move by security services to forestall any new mustering of opposition unrest, the online campaign may not have so much effect this time round.
While offering few specifics, Jalili has said he will restructure government to make it more efficient, bring down soaring inflation, stop tax evasion and make Iran more self-sufficient to skirt the worst effects of sanctions.
But there may be little hope for those who might look to more of the state handouts provided by outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad - a populist policy largely blamed for stoking inflation, now around 30 percent.
"To promise people (a) certain amount of money will only make them lazy," Jalili wrote on Twitter.
But some diplomats and analysts question whether Jalili is the right person to repair the economy and run a country of 75 million people. They see him as a narrow ideologue with scant experience in practical policy or management.
Perhaps most critical in the election, however, will be the backing of Iran's elite Revolutionary Guards, a 100,000-strong force that also controls large parts of the economy and which is widely assumed to have fixed the 2009 vote.
A former Guardsman himself, Jalili was wounded in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war and is often hailed by the Guards as a "living martyr". One of his rival candidates, though, is also a Guards veteran and the force has yet to declare its preference.
Jalili's soft-spoken steeliness will be familiar to negotiators from world powers - Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States - who have faced him in stop-start talks on Iran's disputed nuclear program for five years.
In that time, U.N. sanctions have been tightened three times and several attempts to resolve the dispute - essentially by getting Iran to curb or suspend nuclear activity in exchange for sanctions relief - have fallen short.
Jalili, 47, lost his right leg in the 1980s fighting in a war where the survival of Iran's young Shi'ite Muslim theocracy was under threat from Iraq's Saddam Hussein backed by Western and Sunni Gulf Arab powers.
Western diplomats say they suspect it is his suffering in the war that helps make him a formidable negotiator.
One Western diplomat with close knowledge of the talks called Jalili an "archetypal conservative; old-school, polite" and "not the type of guy who gives in to emotional outbursts".
"He wears you down by being slippery and hard to pin down, by constantly moving the goalposts," the diplomat said.
Before his surprise elevation to head the Supreme National Security Council in 2007, a post that automatically made him the chief nuclear negotiator, Jalili ran Khamenei's office for four years from 2001.
When Ahmadinejad became president in 2005 he chose Jalili as an adviser and within months made him deputy foreign minister.
Ahmadinejad and Khamenei have since fallen out, but Jalili appears to have avoided being dragged into the public quarrel while retaining the confidence of the Supreme Leader.
Jalili gained a doctorate in political science at Imam Sadiq University, a training ground for Iranian leaders, where he wrote a dissertation entitled "Foreign policy of (the) Prophet of Islam", according to a biography that was for a time posted on the Foreign Ministry website.
"He is deeply theologically minded. An education at Imam Sadiq combines a modern education with solid Islamic studies and its graduates rise to the top posts in Iran," said Sadeq Zibakalam, professor of political science at Tehran University.
Geoffrey Adams, a former British ambassador to Iran, told U.S. diplomats that during nuclear talks Jalili "would lecture on the theological and ideological basis of foreign policy in a very academic but pointless manner", according to a leaked U.S. diplomatic cable.