Elections in Iran: 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 offer voters the final choice between a reformist former health minister, Dr. Masoud Pezeshkian, and an ultraconservative former nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, neither of whom managed to secure more than 50 percent of the vote needed to win the presidency. That postpones for another week the question of who will lead Iran through challenges including an ailing economy, a divide between rulers and ruled, and a looming war that continues to threaten to drag Iran further down the drain.

But despite belonging to two different factions, neither is expected to bring about major changes in Iran, as they will have to rule with the final approval of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Here are the most important conclusions that emerged from Friday's elections.

Only 40% of eligible Iranians voted Friday, according to government data, a historically low turnout for an Iranian presidential race – even lower than the 41% level reported for Iran's parliamentary elections this year.

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 hold responsible for ruining the economy, wiping out 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.

Mr. Rouhani struck that deal only to see President Donald J. Trump unilaterally withdraw 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.

And the social freedoms that Iranians carved out under Rouhani’s presidency as enforcers looked the other way — including a loosened dress code that allowed a growing number of Iranian women to drop their mandatory headscarves over their shoulders — evaporated after Mr. Rouhani’s 2021 election. Mr. Rouhani’s successor, Ebrahim Raisi, a hardliner, died in a helicopter crash last month.

Seeing that voting for reformists could not guarantee lasting change, Iranians turned away from the polls and opposed the system. Their anger reached a new peak in 2022, when months of nationwide anti-government protests erupted after a young woman, Mahsa Amini, died after being taken into police custody. With enforcement of the law requiring modest dress increasing under Mr. Raisi, she had been detained for wearing her 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 only reformist in a crowded field, was that the other two leading candidates were both hardliners who split the conservative vote. Jalili, the more ideologically rigid of the two, has no guarantee of winning over his former conservative rival's voters, since previous polls indicated that many of them were not interested in supporting 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 establishment, led by Mr Khamenei, would appear to prefer Mr Jalili to win. Mr. Khamenei is personally close to Mr. Jalili and shares his uncompromising views, and recently indirectly criticized Dr. Pezeshkian for getting too close to the West. The fact that the clerical council that vets presidential candidates allowed five conservatives to run alongside a single reformist signaled that the supreme leader wanted a lieutenant who would espouse a similar agenda.

In the Iranian system, the supreme leader makes all the major decisions, especially when it comes to major issues like nuclear negotiations and foreign policy. But the president can set the tone, as Mr Rouhani has done 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 only the enforcement of the mandatory veil, which has become a point of ongoing conflict 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 soared in recent years and the value of the Iranian currency has plummeted, making life a struggle for Iranians who have seen the value of their salaries and savings evaporate. Many have found it difficult to afford fresh fruit, vegetables and meat.

But efforts to revive the economy may only go so far as Iran continues to suffer from U.S. and European sanctions, which hamper Iran's vital oil sales and banking transactions.

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

Iran is a key player in the conflict that continues to threaten to spill over from Gaza, where Iran’s longtime nemesis Israel is waging a bloody war to eradicate Hamas, into the wider Middle East. Iran has supported, funded 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’s also unclear what the election of a new president will mean for the West’s years-long efforts 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 multiple 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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