Reformist Masoud Pezeshkian reaches runoff in Iranian presidential election

A reformist candidate critical of many of Iran’s government policies, including the mandatory veil law, will compete with a hardline conservative in a runoff election for the country’s presidency next week, Iran’s Interior Ministry announced Saturday. The runoff follows a special vote called after the death of the country’s previous leader, Ebrahim Raisi, in a helicopter crash last month.

A second round of voting will take place on July 5, pitting reformist Masoud Pezeshkian against Saeed Jalili, an ultra-conservative former nuclear negotiator. The runoff was partly the result of low voter turnout and a field of three main candidates. , two of whom competed for the Conservative vote. Iranian law requires a winner to receive more than 50% of all votes cast.

A majority of Iranians, 60 percent, according to the Interior Ministry, did not vote on Friday, in what analysts and candidates’ aides said was largely an act of protest against the government for ignoring their demands for meaningful change.

A prominent Iranian economist, Siamak Ghassemi, said on social media that voters are sending a clear message. “In one of the most competitive presidential elections, where reformists and conservatives came out in force, a 60 percent majority of Iranians have decided to side with reformists and conservatives.”

Iran faces multiple challenges, from internal turmoil to international tensions. Its economy is collapsing under heavy Western sanctions, its citizens' freedoms are increasingly restricted, and its foreign policy is largely shaped by hardline leaders.

The campaign, which initially included six candidates, five conservatives and one reformist, was notable for the frankness with which these issues were discussed and for the public willingness to attack the status quo. In speeches, televised debates, and roundtable discussions, the candidates criticized government policies and ridiculed rosy official assessments of Iran's economic prospects as harmful illusions.

Public dissatisfaction with the ability of each new president to bring about change was reflected in dismal voter turnout, a historic low for a presidential election and even lower than the 41 percent level seen in parliamentary elections earlier this year. The low totals will be a blow to the country’s ruling clerics, who have made voter turnout an indicator of the perceived legitimacy of the vote and had hoped to achieve a 50 percent turnout.

In official results announced Saturday, Dr. Pezeshkian led with 10.4 million votes (42.4 percent), followed by Mr. Jalili with 9.4 million (38.6 percent). A third conservative candidate, Mohammad Baqer Ghalibaf, current president of Parliament and former mayor of Tehran, comes in third place with 3.3 million (13.8%).

It is unclear whether a runoff between two candidates representing different ends of the political spectrum will inspire more voters to turn out, when large numbers of Iranians see the candidates as part of a system they want to reject altogether.

“This is going to be a very difficult and challenging week,” Mohammad Mobin, a Tehran-based analyst who worked on Dr. Pezeshkian’s campaign, said Saturday. “To get voters out, we have to be strategic.” He added, speaking of conservatives: “People think there is no difference between us and them.”

Simple calculations would seem to indicate that Jalili would exceed 50% if he garnered Ghailibaf's votes. But in previous polls, many of those voting for Ghalibaf had said they would not support Jalili. And Dr. Pezeshkian could garner votes from those who fear the prospect of a Jalili presidency.

On Saturday, in a neighborhood in northern Tehran, a group of men discussed the election results and the prospects of the runoff over coffee. One of them, Farzad Jafari, 36, expected a higher turnout in the next vote. He and others also debated whether Jalili would be able to unite the conservative vote in a head-to-head fight, or whether even more voters would emerge to support the reformist option offered by Dr. Pezeshkian.

Mr Jafari said he thought many of those who, like him, abstained from Friday's vote might well have been recalled for the runoff. “I didn't want to vote at all because they excluded those who should have been in the running, they were mostly reformers,” he said. “But more people will vote next time in the next round and those who cast a blank vote, or who did not vote, will come.”

In addition to domestic pressures, Iranian leaders are also facing a particularly volatile time in the region: Israel's war in Gaza against Hamas, an Iranian-backed militant group, and escalating skirmishes between Israel and Hezbollah put two of the Iran's proxy forces against Israel, its sworn enemy.

Despite the campaign's critical rhetoric, the candidates were all members of Iran's political establishment, approved for the race by a committee of Islamic clerics and jurists. All but one, Dr. Pezeshkian, were considered conservatives close to the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Mr Jalili, a former nuclear negotiator, is probably the candidate closest to Mr Khamenei. He leads the far-right Paydari party and represents the country's most intransigent ideological views in matters of domestic and foreign policy. Mr. Jalili said he does not believe Iran needs to negotiate with the United States for economic success.

The Dr. Pezeshkian is a heart surgeon and Iran-Iraq War veteran who served in Parliament and as Iran's Minister of Health. After his wife died in a car accident, he raised his other children as a single father and never remarried. This and his identity as an Azeri, one of Iran's ethnic minorities, endeared him to many voters.

Dr Pezeshkian was backed by a reformist former president, Mohammad Khatami, and expressed openness to nuclear negotiations with the West, framing the debate as an economic issue with the ultimate goal of escaping economic sanctions over its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

After a heated public dispute, Mr Ghalibaf issued a statement on Saturday supporting Mr Jalili and calling on his voters to do the same to ensure victory for the conservative camp.

Raising the deck to increase a conservative's chances of victory, Khamenei signaled his desire for a second-in-command whose vision mirrored his own and who would advance Raisi's hard-line agenda.

The low voter turnout reflects widespread apathy among Iranians, whose frustration has been intensified by the government's violent crackdown on protesters demanding change and its inadequate response to the toll decades of sanctions have taken on the country's economy , reducing the purchasing power of Iranians.

The most recent anti-government demonstrations – and subsequent crackdown – were prompted largely by the 2022 death of Mahsa Amini, who died while in police custody after being detained for incorrectly wearing the mandatory headscarf, or hijab .

In a nod to the unpopularity of the hijab law, all candidates sought to distance themselves from the methods used by the country's morality police to enforce it, including violence, arrests and fines.

While a new president might soften enforcement of the headscarf mandate, as Khatami and a moderate president, Hassan Rouhani, did during their tenures, the law is unlikely to be overturned.

This is largely due to the fact that Iran is a theocracy with parallel systems of government, in which elected bodies are overseen by appointed councils made up of Islamic clerics and jurists. And the main state policies on nuclear, military and foreign affairs are decided by the country's supreme leader, Mr. Khamenei.

The president's role focuses on domestic politics and economic issues, but it is still an influential position. Rouhani, for example, played an active role in crafting the 2015 deal with Western powers in which Iran agreed to scale back its nuclear program in exchange for easing sanctions.

The Trump administration withdrew the United States from that deal in 2018, and Iran has since returned to enriching uranium. Beyond tensions over Tehran's nuclear program, the United States and Iran have moved ever closer to direct confrontation in recent years as they compete for influence across the Middle East.

In Gaza, the war between U.S. ally Israel and Hamas has drawn the United States, Iran and its foreign proxies into a closer conflict. Iran sees the use of these groups as a way to extend its power, but many citizens, particularly in the cities, see little value in their leaders' strategy and believe the economy will recover only through sustained diplomacy and the lifting of sanctions. “We are in a Third World country and we are sitting on top of so much wealth,” said Vahid Arafati, 38, a bar owner in Tehran, after voting on Friday. “For example, the Arab states are benefiting from their wealth, but with our policy we can't achieve anything.”

When asked why he voted if he didn't expect big changes, he replied: “Maybe I have a little hope.” After a pause, he added, “Isn't it nice to have a little hope?”

Leily Nikounazar contributed reporting.

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