A three-way race

Manal Lotfy in London , Tuesday 25 Jun 2024

The Iranian presidential elections, held in tumultuous times, may include a run-off vote and have regional and international repercussions, Manal Lotfy reports

A three-way race


Iranians are heading to the polls on Friday to elect a new president in the middle of a complex domestic, regional, and international landscape. These unexpected elections follow the death of president Ebrahim Raisi and his entourage, including foreign minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian, in a helicopter crash on 19 May near the Iranian-Azerbaijani border after they inaugurated a government project.

The sudden demise of Raisi has created a political vacuum necessitating new presidential elections, and placed Iran at a critical juncture given the ongoing crisis in the Middle East and a volatile international security environment.

The election also occurs just five months before the US presidential elections, where Democratic candidate Joe Biden will face off against Republican Donald Trump. Although the six candidates for the Iranian presidential elections did not delve into their vision for US-Iranian relations during the five rounds of televised debates, this issue remains pressing. It stands alongside the economic crisis, Western sanctions, the nuclear dossier, and regional relations as a critical concern.

However, the debates revealed significant differences among the candidates in their perceptions of relations with Washington and in their approaches to dealing with inflation, Western sanctions, rampant corruption, personal and social freedoms, and the compulsory hijab.

Saeed Jalili, the former chief nuclear negotiator and a staunch conservative, advocates maintaining a hardline stance against the US, which he believes cannot be trusted. He emphasises the need for an “experienced politician” and supports a “resistance economy” to counter Western sanctions.  Jalili enjoys strong support among conservatives but is less popular in reformist strongholds such as Tehran and other major cities.

Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, the current speaker of the Iranian parliament and a former commander of the Revolutionary Guards, is a conservative with pragmatic inclinations. He acknowledged the adverse effects of Western sanctions and promised a more flexible, step-by-step approach, coordinating with all state institutions in Iran, to lift economic sanctions and negotiate with the West. Qalibaf presents himself as the strongman capable of navigating his way out of the crises and has pledged to adjust wages to combat high inflation.

Tehran’s current mayor, Ali Reza Zakani, is another conservative candidate. A hardline politician viewed by reformists as a sworn enemy due to his polarising statements, Zakani opposes negotiating with the West and reviving the nuclear agreement to lift sanctions. During one of the presidential debates, he criticised what he called “begging diplomacy” with the West.

Another candidate is Amir Hossein Qazizadeh Hashemi, head of the Iranian Martyrs Foundation and a conservative who doubts the efficacy of negotiating with the West to alleviate economic pressure. His slogan, “The West is not the solution,” suggests that he believes Western financial institutions, such as the IMF and the World Bank, create more problems than they solve.

Mustafa Pourmohammadi, who has served in both conservative and reformist governments and has a history of prosecuting reformists while working in the Ministry of Intelligence, positioned himself, to the surprise of many, during the debates as “an old politician with a new face.” He criticised compulsory hijab enforcement and several state institutions, including the Central Bank, for failing to control inflation. He advocates for a free-market economy to attract private investment.

The sole reformist candidate, Masoud Pezeshkian, a cardiothoracic surgeon and member of parliament for East Azerbaijan Province, as well as a former health minister under reformist president Mohammad Khatami, has portrayed himself as the “voice of the people.” He has spoken in relatable terms about how inflation is eroding Iranians’ purchasing power and promised transparency in government finances, metaphorically placing “the government treasury in a room made entirely of glass.” During the debates, he emphasised his support for negotiating with the West to lift sanctions, which he argues have disastrous effects on Iran’s economy, including forcing the country to sell oil at below-market prices to nations like China and India.

Although not as prominent as reformist leaders like Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, Khatami, Pezeshkian has garnered support from reformists, including former foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. This backing comes amid calls to boycott the elections, especially after the Guardian Council disqualified notable political figures like Ali Larijani, the speaker of the Iranian Parliament from 2008 to 2020, without explanation.

While six candidates are in the race, it essentially boils down to three frontrunners: Ghalibaf, Jalili, and Pezeshkian.  Opinion polls suggest that none of these candidates is likely to secure 50 per cent of the votes in the first round, making a runoff on 5 July likely. As Iran prepares to vote, all eyes will be on the popular turnout and the implications of the election for the region and the world.

Popular turnout is crucial. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has often used high voter turnout in Iran to criticise declining electoral participation in the West. However, Iran has also seen a decline in voter turnout, with participation dropping below 49 per cent in the 2021 presidential elections won by Ebrahim Raisi, compared to a participation rate ranging between 80 per cent and 70 per cent in the first decades after the 1979 Revolution.

Some conservatives prefer low turnout as it enhances their electoral chances. Conservative voters, who are socially and religiously inclined, rarely abstain from voting, while reformists and liberals tend to boycott elections without a strong reformist candidate promising change. Though Pezeshkian is not as charismatic as Khatami, his campaign has quickly gained support among disillusioned voters, driven by the significant internal, regional, and international challenges facing Iran.

While Iranians empathise strongly with the Palestinians in Gaza and the unprecedented humanitarian crisis they face, their votes are primarily influenced by local concerns affecting their daily lives, such as inflation, unemployment, sanctions, corruption, and personal and social freedoms.

Within the complex mosaic of Iranian society, these elections may mark a turning point in Iran’s social situation. Increasingly, Iranian women are challenging the mandatory hijab. In affluent, liberal areas north of Tehran, defying the hijab requirement has become commonplace. The “moral police” find it practically impossible to arrest every woman not adhering to the hijab mandate out of fear of widespread demonstrations similar to those following the death of Mahsa Amini, who died in a Tehran police station in September 2022 after being arrested for not wearing the hijab properly.

Among the presidential candidates, Jalili, Qalibaf, Zakani, and Zadeh Hashemi support strict enforcement of the hijab, while Pezeshkian and Pourmohammadi advocate for a more flexible approach and societal discussion. Although this issue appears to be a matter of personal and social freedom, it is far more significant. Young Iranians prioritise this issue as it directly impacts the rights and freedoms of millions. Demonstrations against the compulsory hijab and the “moral police” have become the regime’s “Achilles’ heel.” Iranians realise they face a choice between a candidate who will enforce strict hijab laws, like Jalili and Zakani, or a moderate candidate who will promote more individual freedoms.

The Iranian elections have regional repercussions that resonate beyond its borders. Iran’s influence in the Middle East means the region is keenly watching who will become the next president. The six candidates may disagree on many issues, but they unanimously support Iran’s regional policy, including the “axis of resistance.” This stance is significant amid the ongoing Israeli war on the Palestinians in Gaza, threats of an Israeli military operation against Lebanon, and attacks on Iran’s allies in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. Additionally, the candidates agree on the need to continue improving relations with neighbouring countries, capitalising on the resumption of diplomatic ties between Tehran and Riyadh to strengthen relations with other regional powers. Balancing alliances and enmities will be crucial for the new Iranian administration, especially in the current turbulent security environment in the Middle East and globally. These challenges are compounded by the potential changes in US leadership after the upcoming US presidential elections next November.

The Iran-US confrontation goes beyond the military-security dimensions to an ideological battle. The two countries have fundamentally different visions for the Middle East: the US aims for a region united against Iran, while Iran envisions a Middle East free from American influence.

Thus, on the global diplomatic stage, Tehran is unlikely to change any of its policies until the identity of the next US president is known. A Biden re-election would be viewed favourably by Iran, potentially reviving nuclear negotiations. Conversely, a Trump victory would pose significant challenges for the new Iranian president, given Trump’s exit from the nuclear agreement in 2018 and his “maximum pressure” policy to isolate Iran.

European countries are also closely watching the Iranian elections. If a moderate candidate like Pezeshkian, who advocates negotiating with the West, reviving the nuclear agreement, and lifting sanctions, is elected, it could positively influence Britain, France, and Germany’s diplomatic stance towards Tehran. These countries might moderate their criticism of Iran’s nuclear policies, especially given the recent increase in uranium enrichment.

Historically, to manage internal and external pressures, the Iranian regime has relied on a “tight and loose” strategy, alternating leadership between reformists and conservatives. Following the presidency of the pragmatic conservative Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, reformist Mohammad Khatami was elected. He was succeeded by the conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, then the moderate reformist Hassan Rouhani, and most recently, the conservative Ebrahim Raisi.

By this logic, the reformist candidate Pezeshkian might have a strong chance, especially as the reformist camp has united around him, urging a large voter turnout for the social changes they aspire to. However, a critical factor in every Iranian election is the preference of the Supreme Leader.

It is evident from Supreme Leader Khamenei’s praise for Ebrahim Raisi before his death that he favours a conservative president. Khamenei believes that extremism towards America and the West is essential to protecting Iran’s vital interests. This suggests his preference for candidates like Jalili and Qalibaf. Nevertheless, Khamenei also understands the importance of electing a president who has general acceptance among the Iranian populace to maintain the integrity of the elections. This consideration could also boost Pezeshkian’s chances, especially as he is not a radical reformist, unlike Khatami, making him an acceptable choice for the Supreme Leader as well.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 27 June, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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