Iran Elections: What to Know

Iranian voters demonstrated their displeasure with Iran’s clerical system of governance during Friday’s presidential election, turning out in record numbers to help two establishment candidates limp to a runoff.

The July 5 runoff 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 secure more than 50 percent of the vote needed to win the presidency. That postpones for another week the question of who will lead Iran through challenges including an ailing economy, the divide between rulers and ruled, and a looming war that continues to threaten to drag Iran further into the fold.

But despite being on different sides, neither is expected to bring major changes to Iran, as they will have to govern with the ultimate approval of Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Here are the most important results to emerge from Friday’s elections.

Only 40% of eligible Iranians voted Friday, according to government data, a historically low turnout for an Iranian presidential race – even lower than the 41% level reported for Iran's parliamentary elections this year.

While Iranian elections once drew enthusiastic crowds, in recent years more and more people have been staying home in protest against the ruling establishment, which they accuse of destroying the economy, stifling social and political freedoms and isolating Iran from the world.

In the 2013 presidential election, large numbers of middle-class urban Iranians eager for prosperity and a more open society placed their trust in a reformist candidate, Hassan Rouhani. They hoped he would ease social and political restrictions and reach a deal that would lift punitive Western sanctions in exchange for curbing their country’s nuclear activities.

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

And the social freedoms that Iranians have carved out for themselves under Rouhani's presidency, while the enforcers looked the other way, including a looser dress code that has allowed a growing number of Iranian women to drop the mandatory veil on their shoulders , have faded since the 2021 election of Rouhani's successor, Ebrahim Raisi, an extremist who died in a helicopter crash last month.

Seeing that voting for reformists could not ensure lasting change, Iranians turned away from the polls and opposed the system. Their anger reached a new peak in 2022, when months of nationwide anti-government 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 headscarf improperly.

Voters remain skeptical that any candidate can bring about real 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 certain that they will support Dr. Pezeshkian in the runoff.

One reason Dr. Pezeshkian made it to the runoff, despite being the only reformist in a crowded field, was that the other two leading candidates were both hardliners who split the conservative vote. Jalili, the more ideologically rigid of the two, is not guaranteed to win over his former conservative rival's voters, since previous polls indicated that many of them were not interested in supporting Jalili.

However, that could change after rival Mohammad Baqer Ghalibaf on Saturday called on his supporters to vote for Mr Jalili to ensure a conservative victory.

Overall, the powerful ruling establishment, led by Mr. Khamenei, would appear to favor Mr. Jalili as a winner. Mr. Khamenei is personally close to Mr. Jalili and shares his hardline views, and he recently indirectly criticized Dr. Pezeshkian for moving 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 embraced a similar agenda.

In the Iranian system, the supreme leader makes all the major decisions, especially when it comes to major issues such as nuclear negotiations and foreign policy. But the president can set the tone, as Rouhani did with his pursuit of a nuclear deal with the West.

Whoever becomes president will likely have a freer hand in managing issues such as social restrictions, not only the enforcement of the mandatory veil, which has become a point of ongoing conflict between Iran's rulers and its population, but also sensitive issues such as whether female singers can perform on stage.

It will also have some influence on the country's economic policy. Inflation has soared in recent years and the value of Iran's currency has plummeted, making life an uphill struggle for Iranians who have seen the value of their salaries and savings vanish. It has become difficult for many to afford fresh fruit, vegetables and meat.

But efforts to revive the economy could have only limited effect as long as Iran continues to suffer under U.S. and European sanctions, which limit Iran's crucial oil sales and banking transactions.

Outside Iran, all eyes are on the next direction of the country's foreign and nuclear policy.

Iran is a key player in the conflict that continues to threaten 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, deadly attacks in recent months.

While the violence has not yet escalated into war, partly because Iran does not want to be drawn into a broader conflict, Israel has recently toughened its tone, warning that it may shift its focus from Gaza to Lebanon. And Iran and Israel no longer limit their hostilities to proxy battles or covert attacks: This year the two sides have carried out open, if limited, attacks on each other's territory.

It is also unclear what the election of a new president will mean for the West's years-long 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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