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Reformist Reaches Runoff in Iran’s Presidential Election

LocalReformist Reaches Runoff in Iran’s Presidential Election

A reformist candidate critical of an Iranian law that requires women to wear head scarves will compete next week against a hard-line conservative in a runoff election for the country’s presidency, state media said on Saturday, following a special vote after the previous leader was killed last month in a helicopter crash.

A second round of voting, which will pit the reformist, Masoud Pezeshkian, against Saeed Jalili, an ultraconservative former nuclear negotiator, will take place on July 5. The runoff was in part the result of low voter turnout and a crowded field of four candidates, three of whom competed for the conservative vote. Iranian law requires a winner to receive more than 50 percent of all votes cast.

Participation in another round of voting will strain the energies of an already apathetic electorate, unsatisfied by their leaders at a time of international and domestic turmoil. Iran’s economy is cratering under punishing Western sanctions, its citizens’ freedoms are increasingly curtailed and its foreign policy is largely shaped by hard-line leaders.

The campaign, which initially included six candidates — five conservatives and one reformist — was notable for how candidly those issues were discussed and a public willingness to attack the status quo. In speeches, televised debates and round-table discussions, the candidates criticized government policies and ridiculed rosy official assessments of Iran’s economic prospects as harmful delusions.

Public dissatisfaction in any new president’s ability to bring change was reflected in low turnout for the election: According to Iran’s state news agency, only 40 percent of eligible voters cast ballots.

In the official results announced on Saturday, Dr. Pezeshkian led with 10.4 million votes (42.4 percent), followed by Mr. Jalili at 9.4 million (38.6 percent). A third conservative candidate, Gen. Mohammad Baqer Ghalibaf, the current speaker of Parliament and former mayor of Tehran, was a distant third at 3.3 million (13.8 percent).

The low totals will be a blow to the country’s governing clerics, who made voter participation a marker of the vote’s perceived legitimacy and had hoped to achieve 50 percent turnout.

Besides domestic pressures, Iran’s leaders are also facing an especially volatile time in the region: Israel’s war in Gaza against Hamas, an Iranian-backed militant group, and an escalation in skirmishes between Israel and Hezbollah pit two of Iran’s proxy forces against Israel, its sworn enemy.

Despite the critical rhetoric of the campaign, the candidates were all members of the Iranian political establishment, approved to run by a committee of Islamic clerics and jurists. All but one, Dr. Pezeshkian, were considered conservatives close to the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Mr. Jalili, a former nuclear negotiator, is likely the candidate closest to Mr. Khamenei. He leads the ultra-right-wing Paydari party and represents the country’s most hard-line ideological views when it comes to domestic and foreign policy. Mr. Jalili has said he believes Iran does not need to negotiate with the United States for economic success.

Dr. Pezeshkian is a cardiac surgeon and veteran of the Iran-Iraq war who served in Parliament and as Iran’s health minister. After his wife and child died in a car accident, he raised his other children as a single father and has never remarried. This and his identity as an Azeri, one of Iran’s ethnic minorities, has endeared him to many voters.

Dr. Pezeshkian was endorsed by former President Mohammad Khatami, and he has expressed openness to nuclear negotiations with the West, framing the debate as an economic issue. But with the conservative vote no longer split among multiple candidates, his path to the presidency could become more complicated in the head-to-head runoff.

By stacking the deck to increase the chances of a conservative’s victory, Mr. Khamenei signaled his desire for a second in command whose outlook mirrored his own and who would continue the agenda of Ebrahim Raisi, the hard-line president killed last month in a helicopter crash near the border with Azerbaijan.

The low voter turnout reflected widespread apathy among Iranians, who also voted in record low numbers in parliamentary elections this year. That frustration has been intensified by the government’s violent crackdowns on protesters demanding change and its inadequate response to the toll that decades of sanctions have wreaked on the country’s economy, shrinking Iranians’ purchasing power.

The most recent anti-government demonstrations — and an ensuing crackdown — were prompted largely by the 2022 death of Mahsa Amini, who died in police custody after being detained for incorrectly wearing her mandatory head scarf, or hijab.

In a nod to the unpopularity of the hijab law, the candidates all sought to distance themselves from the methods the country’s morality policy use to enforce it, which include violence, arrests and fines.

Although the head scarf mandate became a campaign issue, it is unlikely that the law will be annulled, and it is doubtful that a new president can soften its enforcement. The protests, organized largely by women, provoked a bloody crackdown ordered by Mr. Khamenei, and any new president, analysts said, would be expected to enforce his policy.

That is largely because Iran is a theocracy with parallel systems of governance in which elected bodies are supervised by appointed councils made up of Islamic clerics and jurists. Key state policies on nuclear, military and foreign affairs are decided by the country’s supreme leader, Mr. Khamenei.

The president’s role is focused on domestic policy and economic matters, but it is still an influential position. Previous presidents have played active roles in conducting foreign policy, including a 2015 deal with the United States in which Iran agreed to shelve its nuclear program in exchange for the easing of sanctions.

That deal was scuppered in 2018 by the Trump administration, and Iran has returned to enriching uranium. Beyond tensions over Tehran’s nuclear program, the United States and Iran have in the past year come increasingly close to a direct confrontation as they compete for influence across the Middle East.

In Gaza, the war between Israel, a U.S. ally, and Hamas has drawn the United States, Iran and Iran’s foreign proxies into closer conflict. Iran sees its use of those groups as a way of extending its power, but many citizens, particularly in the cities, see little value in their leaders’ strategy and believe the economy will recover only through sustained diplomacy.

Leily Nikounazar contributed reporting.

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