Four Takeaways From Iran’s Presidential Election

Iranian voters signaled their disenchantment with Iran’s system of clerical rule in the country’s presidential election on Friday, going to the polls in record-low numbers to help two establishment candidates limp to a runoff.

The runoff on July 5 will offer voters a final choice between a reformist former health minister, Dr. Masoud Pezeshkian, and an ultraconservative former nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, neither of whom managed to get more than the 50 percent of votes needed to win the presidency. That postpones for another week the question of who will steer Iran through challenges including a sickly economy, the gulf between rulers and ruled and a nearby war that keeps threatening to drag Iran further in.

But despite belonging to two different camps, neither man is expected to bring major change to Iran, given that they must govern with the ultimate approval of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Here are the most important takeaways emerging from Friday’s election.

Only 40 percent of eligible Iranians voted on Friday, according to government figures, a historically low turnout for an Iranian presidential race — even lower than the 41 percent level reported for Iran’s parliamentary elections this year.

Though Iranian elections once drew enthusiastic crowds, more and more people have stayed home in recent years as a form of protest against the ruling establishment, which they blame for wrecking the economy, snuffing out social and political freedoms and isolating Iran from the world.

In the 2013 presidential election, large numbers of urban, middle-class Iranians eager for prosperity and a more open society put their faith in a reformist candidate, Hassan Rouhani. They hoped he would loosen social and political restrictions and strike an agreement that would lift punishing Western sanctions in exchange for restricting their country’s nuclear activities.

Mr. Rouhani made that deal only for President Donald J. Trump to unilaterally withdraw from it and reimpose sanctions in 2018, sending Iran’s economy — which analysts say has also suffered from Iranian leaders’ mismanagement and corruption — back into a tailspin.

And social freedoms that Iranians carved out under Mr. Rouhani’s presidency as enforcers looked the other way — including a loosened dress code that allowed growing numbers of Iranian women to let their mandatory head scarves fall to their shoulders — evaporated after the 2021 election of Mr. Rouhani’s successor, Ebrahim Raisi, a hard-liner who died in a helicopter crash last month.

Seeing that voting for reformists could not secure lasting change, Iranians turned away from the polls and against the system. Their anger hit a new peak in 2022, when months of countrywide antigovernment protests erupted after a young woman, Mahsa Amini, died after being taken into police custody. With enforcement of the law requiring modest dress on the rise under Mr. Raisi, she had been detained for wearing her head scarf improperly.

Voters remain skeptical that any candidate can bring true 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 a sure thing that they will turn out to back Dr. Pezeshkian during the runoff.

One reason Dr. Pezeshkian made it to the runoff, despite being the only reformist in a crowded field, was that the two other main candidates were both hard-liners who split the conservative vote. Mr. Jalili, the more ideologically rigid of the twos, is not guaranteed to pick up his former conservative rival’s voters, since earlier polls indicated that many of those were not interested in supporting Mr. Jalili.

Still, that may change after that rival, Mohammad Baqer Ghalibaf, asked his followers on Saturday to vote for Mr. Jalili to ensure a conservative victory.

Overall, the powerful ruling establishment, led by Mr. Khamenei, would seem to prefer that Mr. Jalili win. Mr. Khamenei is personally close to Mr. Jalili and shares his hard-line views, and he recently obliquely criticized Dr. Pezeshkian for hewing 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 embrace a similar agenda.

In Iran’s system, the supreme leader makes all of the biggest decisions, especially when it comes to momentous issues like nuclear negotiations and foreign policy. But the president can set the tone, as Mr. Rouhani did with his pursuit of a nuclear deal with the West.

Whoever becomes president is likely to have a freer hand in managing matters like social restrictions — not only enforcement of the mandatory head scarf, which has become an continuing flashpoint between Iran’s rulers and its population, but also touchy issues like whether female singers can perform onstage.

He will also have some influence over the country’s economic policy. Inflation has soared in recent years and the value of the Iranian currency has plunged, making life a grinding struggle for Iranians who have seen the value of their paychecks and savings melt away. Fresh fruit, vegetables and meat have all become tough for many to afford.

But efforts at resuscitating the economy may go only so far when Iran continues to suffer under American and European sanctions, which curb Iran’s all-important oil sales as well as banking transactions.

Outside Iran, all eyes are on where the country’s foreign and nuclear policy will go next.

Iran is a crucial player in the conflict that keeps threatening 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 strikes in recent months.

Though that violence has not yet metastasized into war, in part because Iran does not want to be drawn into a wider conflict, Israel recently sharpened its tone, warning that it could turn its focus from Gaza to Lebanon. And Iran and Israel are no longer restricting their hostilities to battles by proxy or secret strikes: The two sides carried out open, if limited, strikes this year on each other’s territory.

It is also unclear what the election of a new president will mean for the West’s yearslong effort to curb Iran’s nuclear program. Six years after Mr. Trump withdrew the United States from the original nuclear deal, Iran is now closer than ever to being able to produce several 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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