Iranians Choose Their President Between a Reformist and a Hardline Conservative

Opposition figures inside Iran and in the diaspora are calling for a boycott of the elections, arguing that the conservative and reformist camps are two sides of the same coin.

Today, Friday, voters in Iran are casting their ballots in the second round of the presidential elections, where reformist candidate Masoud Pezeshkian, who advocates for opening up to the West, faces off against hardline conservative and former nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili, known for his rigid stances towards the West.

These elections, whose first round was held on June 28, were hastily organized to choose a successor to Ebrahim Raisi, who died in a helicopter crash on May 19.

The second round is being closely watched abroad, as Iran, a significant power in the Middle East, is at the center of many geopolitical crises, from the war in Gaza to the nuclear issue, which has been a source of contention between the Islamic Republic and the West for several years.

The elections are taking place amid widespread public discontent, primarily due to deteriorating economic conditions caused by Western sanctions reimposed on Iran.

In the first round held a week ago, the voter turnout was 39.92% out of 61 million eligible voters, the lowest level ever since the Islamic Republic was established 45 years ago. In the 1980s and 1990s, the voter turnout was around 80%.

In the second round, voters will decide between Pezeshkian (69 years old), who advocates for opening up to the West, and Jalili (58 years old), known for his hardline stances against Western powers.

In the first round, Pezeshkian received 42.4% of the votes compared to Jalili’s 38.6%, while another conservative candidate, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, came in third.

Pezeshkian was relatively unknown when he entered the elections but managed to lead the race by exploiting the division among conservatives, who failed to agree on a single candidate.

Qalibaf has urged his supporters to vote for Jalili in the second round, while Pezeshkian enjoys the support of former reformist presidents Mohammad Khatami and moderate Hassan Rouhani.

On the other hand, opposition figures inside Iran and in the diaspora have called for a boycott of the elections, arguing that the conservative and reformist camps are two sides of the same coin.

Pezeshkian, a surgeon and deputy from Tabriz (northwest), has limited governmental experience, having served as the Minister of Health from 2001 to 2005 in President Khatami’s government.

Pezeshkian is known for his candid remarks and did not hesitate to criticize the authorities during the widespread protest movement that shook Iran following the death of young woman Mahsa Amini in September 2022 after she was detained for not adhering to the strict dress code in the Islamic Republic.

During a televised debate on Monday, the rivals discussed economic difficulties facing the country, international relations, low voter turnout, and government-imposed internet restrictions.

Pezeshkian stated, “People are not satisfied with us,” especially due to the lack of representation of women and religious and ethnic minorities in politics. He added, “When 60% of the population does not participate (in the elections), it means there is a problem with the government.”

Jalili expressed concern over the low voter turnout but did not blame the authorities. However, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who urged voters to participate in the election on Wednesday, said, “It is entirely wrong to think that those who did not vote in the first round are against the system.”

On the economic front, Jalili claimed during the debate that he could achieve 8% growth, compared to 5.7% between March 2023 and March 2024. He also reiterated his opposition to any rapprochement between Iran and Western countries.

Jalili, who was a nuclear negotiator from 2007 to 2013, strongly opposed the agreement eventually reached between Iran and major powers, including the United States, which imposed restrictions on Iran’s nuclear activity in exchange for lifting sanctions.

Pezeshkian, on the other hand, announced that reviving the agreement, frozen since Washington’s unilateral withdrawal in 2018 and the reimposition of sanctions on Tehran, would be a top priority for his government.

Regardless of the election outcome, its impact on the country’s direction will be limited as the president in Iran has limited powers. The supreme responsibility in governance lies with the Supreme Leader, who is considered the head of state, while the president is responsible for implementing the broad political guidelines set by the Supreme Leader.

In the capital, Jawad Abdul Karim, a 42-year-old cook, told AFP he would vote on Friday but “still does not know for whom,” hoping that the new government would help slow down inflation and the depreciation of the national currency.

Fatima, a 75-year-old retiree, said she would abstain from voting because “neither candidate (…) cares about the people at all.” Ali, a 24-year-old student who preferred not to give his full name, said the best choice for him was Pezeshkian because “he can open the country to the rest of the world.”

The reformist candidate called for “constructive relations” with the United States and European countries to “bring Iran out of its isolation.”

Conversely, Jalili reiterated his hardline stance towards the West, arguing that Tehran does not need to revive the nuclear agreement, which imposed stringent restrictions on its nuclear activity in exchange for easing sanctions. He said this agreement “violated Tehran’s red lines” by accepting “extraordinary inspections of Iranian nuclear sites.”

During her participation in an election rally on Wednesday, Maryam Al-Narawi (40 years old) said Jalili represents “the best choice for the country’s security.”

Throughout his career, Jalili has held key positions in the system thanks to the Supreme Leader’s trust in him. Jalili is currently one of the Supreme Leader’s representatives in the Supreme National Security Council, the highest security body in the country.

The results of the second round are expected to be announced on Saturday noon.

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