Does Iran’s Presidential Election Matter?
from Middle East Program

Does Iran’s Presidential Election Matter?

Iran’s presidential candidates take part in an election debate at a television studio in Tehran.
Iran’s presidential candidates take part in an election debate at a television studio in Tehran. Morteza Fakhri Nezhad/IRIB/WANA/Reuters

The contest to replace Ebrahim Raisi, killed in a helicopter crash last month, is dominated by conservatives who have provided few signals of any major course change in the country’s regional and security policies.

June 25, 2024 5:32 pm (EST)

Iran’s presidential candidates take part in an election debate at a television studio in Tehran.
Iran’s presidential candidates take part in an election debate at a television studio in Tehran. Morteza Fakhri Nezhad/IRIB/WANA/Reuters
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Has this brief presidential campaign, just two weeks long, revealed anything about the priorities of Iran’s conservatives or any change in the country’s path?

In terms of policy discussion, this campaign has been short on detail and long on sloganeering. Five out of the six candidates in the June 28 election belong to the conservative faction—Parliament head Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, former nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili, Tehran Mayor Alireza Zakani, Amir-Hossein Ghazizadeh Hashemi, a deputy of the recently deceased Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, and Mostafa Pourmohammadi, a former interior and justice minister. Although they share hard-line credentials, they differ in tone and approach to seeking high office. The only candidate from the reformist faction is lawmaker and former Health Minister Masoud Pezeshkian, who appears to be polling in either second or third place in some Iranian opinion surveys, though such polls are unreliable.

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They are all criticizing the status quo yet praising Raisi and pledging to uphold his path; Raisi’s three-year tenure was marked by subservience to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, crackdowns on dissent, and support for the security services in their efforts to challenge Israel and U.S.-led forces in the region.

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The two leading conservative candidates, Qalibaf and Jalili, have had some tense exchanges, with Jalili’s allies accusing Qalibaf of rampant corruption. Beyond that, there is little disagreement between the two. They have both lamented the state of the economy without offering a path forward. Qalibaf, a former police chief and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commander, has publicly noted his role in suppressing student protests in 1999 and 2003, and after the contested 2009 presidential election.

How important is voter turnout?

Voter turnout is how the regime estimates its popular legitimacy, and this is an area of growing concern for hard-liners. Recent elections in Iran have seen record-low turnout, especially in urban areas, reflecting a lack of interest in the largely stage-managed races. In March’s parliamentary elections, official reports showed turnout of 41 percent, though critics of the regime say it was even lower.

The current presidential election has yet to excite the public, with low turnout at campaign events. The candidates have been lackluster and debates so far have not captured the national imagination the way they did in 2013, when candidate Hassan Rouhani challenged the system. Rouhani generated interest with proposals to open negotiations with the West over the country’s nuclear plan as a path toward easing crushing sanctions. As president, Rouhani followed through on those negotiations, which led to the short-lived nuclear deal. There is still time for this year’s candidates to capture public interest in the coming week, as the candidates’ messages are expected to get sharper closer to the elections.

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The regime would prefer to have these snap elections decided in a single round, but a runoff will ensue if no candidate receives at least 50 percent of the vote. The last runoff vote for president occurred in 2005, when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad defeated Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

Will the results have any impact on Iran’s foreign policy, particularly its backing of an “axis of resistance” composed of regional forces?

Iran’s axis of resistance has been so remarkably successful that it is hard to see why anyone would seek to disrupt a policy that has allowed Tehran to project power with some measure of impunity. As the elections approached, for instance, the Houthis in Yemen stepped up their disruptive attacks on commercial shipping in the Red Sea, and Hezbollah forces in Lebanon were involved in some of their most intense clashes with Israel since the October 7 Hamas attacks that precipitated Israel’s war in the Gaza Strip. The reformist candidate, Pezeshkian, has spoken about reviving nuclear diplomacy, and he is openly supported by former Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who negotiated the Iran nuclear deal. Even hard-liner candidates such as Pourmohammadi and Jalili have emphasized the need for more-active diplomacy on all fronts.

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Iran Nuclear Agreement

Final decisions on security issues are made by the supreme leader, but the president does have the ability to press and cajole institutions and regime power centers—up to a point.

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