Iran Elections: What to Know

Iranian voters demonstrated their displeasure with Iran’s clerical system of governance during Friday’s presidential election, turning out in record numbers to help two establishment candidates limp to a runoff.

The July 5 runoff will give voters a final choice between a reformist former health minister, Dr. Masoud Pezeshkian, and an ultra-conservative former nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, neither of whom managed to get more than 50 percent of the votes needed to win the presidency. That puts off for another week the question of who will lead Iran through challenges including an ailing economy, the divide between the rulers and the ruled and a nearby war that continues to threaten to drag Iran further in.

But despite being on different sides, neither is expected to bring major changes to Iran, as they will have to govern with the ultimate approval of Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Here are the most important conclusions to emerge from Friday’s elections.

According to government data, only 40 percent of eligible Iranians voted on Friday, a historically low turnout for an Iranian presidential race and even lower than the 41 percent level recorded for this year’s Iranian parliamentary elections.

While Iranian elections once drew enthusiastic crowds, in recent years more and more people have been staying home in protest against the ruling establishment, which they accuse of destroying the economy, stifling social and political freedoms and isolating Iran from the world.

In the 2013 presidential election, large numbers of middle-class urban Iranians eager for prosperity and a more open society placed their trust in a reformist candidate, Hassan Rouhani. They hoped he would ease social and political restrictions and reach a deal that would lift punitive Western sanctions in exchange for curbing their country’s nuclear activities.

Rouhani struck that deal only for President Donald J. Trump to unilaterally withdraw from the agreement and reimpose sanctions in 2018, sending Iran’s economy — which analysts say has also suffered from mismanagement and corruption by Iran’s leaders — into a tailspin again.

And the social freedoms that Iranians carved out under Rouhani while guardians looked the other way, including a relaxed dress code that allowed a growing number of Iranian women to drop their mandatory headscarves, have evaporated since the 2021 election of Rouhani’s successor, Ebrahim Raisi, a hardliner who died in a helicopter crash last month.

Seeing that voting for reformists could not guarantee lasting change, Iranians turned away from the polls and stood against the system. Their anger reached a new peak in 2022, when months of anti-government protests across the country erupted after a young woman, Mahsa Amini, died after being taken into police custody. With enforcement of the law requiring modest dress on the rise under Mr. Raisi, she had been arrested for wearing a headscarf improperly.

Voters remain skeptical that any candidate can bring real change, even one who has been as openly critical of the government as Dr. Pezeshkian, the reformist candidate. So, despite many voters' disillusionment with the current Conservative-dominated government, it is far from certain that they will support Dr. Pezeshkian in the run-off.

One reason Dr. Pezeshkian made it to the runoff, despite being the lone reformist in a crowded field, is that the other two leading candidates were both hardliners who split the conservative vote. Mr. Jalili, the more ideologically rigid of the two, is not guaranteed to win over his former conservative rival’s voters, as previous polls indicated that many of them were not interested in supporting Mr. Jalili.

However, that could change after rival, Mohammad Baqer Ghalibaf, on Saturday asked his followers to vote for Jalili to secure a conservative victory.

Overall, the powerful ruling class, led by Mr. Khamenei, would appear to favor Mr. Jalili. Mr. Khamenei is personally close to Mr. Jalili and shares his hardline views, and he recently indirectly criticized Dr. Pezeshkian for being too close to the West. The fact that the clerical council that vets presidential candidates allowed five conservatives to run alongside a single reformist indicated that the supreme leader wanted a lieutenant who embraced a similar agenda.

In the Iranian system, the supreme leader makes all the major decisions, especially when it comes to major issues such as nuclear negotiations and foreign policy. But the president can set the tone, as Rouhani did with his pursuit of a nuclear deal with the West.

Whoever becomes president will likely have a freer hand in managing issues such as social restrictions – not just the enforcement of compulsory veiling, which has become an ongoing sticking point between Iran's rulers and its population, but also sensitive issues such as whether female singers can perform on stage. .

It will also have some influence on the country's economic policy. Inflation has skyrocketed in recent years and the value of the Iranian currency has plummeted, making life a grueling struggle for Iranians who have seen the value of their wages and savings melt away. Fresh fruit, vegetables and meat have all become difficult for many to afford.

But efforts to revive the economy may only go so far as Iran continues to suffer from American and European sanctions, which curb Iran's all-important oil sales and banking transactions.

Outside Iran, all eyes are on the future direction of the country's foreign and nuclear policy.

Iran is a crucial player in the conflict that continues to threaten to spill from Gaza, where Israel, Iran's longtime nemesis, is waging a bloody war to eradicate Hamas, into the broader Middle East. Iran has supported, financed and armed not only Hamas, but also Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militia on Israel's northern border with which Israel has exchanged repeated and deadly attacks in recent months.

While that violence has not yet escalated into war, partly because Iran does not want to be drawn into a larger conflict, Israel has recently toughened its tone, warning that it may shift its focus from Gaza to Lebanon. And Iran and Israel are no longer limiting their hostilities to proxy battles or covert attacks: The two sides have conducted limited, but open, attacks on each other’s territory this year.

It is also unclear what the election of a new president will mean for years-long efforts by the West to curb Iran's nuclear program. Six years after Trump withdrew the United States from the original nuclear deal, Iran is now closer than ever to producing several nuclear weapons. And after decades of insisting that its nuclear program is entirely peaceful, some of Iran's top leaders are publicly arguing that recent missile exchanges with Israel mean Iran should embrace building a bomb.

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