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Could a reformist actually win the Iranian presidential election?

Could a reformist actually win the Iranian presidential election?

There is one moderate among a parade of hardliners contending to replace the late Ebrahim Raisi

Analysis | Middle East

Iran’s presidential election, necessitated by the death in a helicopter accident of President Ebrahim Raisi May 19, will be held June 28. Under Iran’s constitution, early elections for a successor must take place within 50 days after the previous president has either died or resigned, or was impeached and removed from office.

Over 80 people, mostly previous and current officials, registered with the Ministry of Interior as candidates. The Guardian Council, a constitutional body, vets all candidates for national elections. On Sunday June 9, the Council announced a list of six eligible candidates. Of the six, five are from the ranks of the hardline and conservative factions, and were widely expected to qualify, while the sixth candidate, a reformist, is a surprise.

Of the five hardline and conservative candidates, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, 62, a retired Brigadier General in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, former commander of the IRGC air force, former commander of the national police, former Tehran Mayor, and current Speaker of the Majles, or parliament, has run for the presidency three precious times — in 2005, 2013, and 2017. He has been involved in many economic corruption cases, and, when he was the commander of the national police, he also played a leading role in repression of college and university students, intellectuals, and dissidents. But he is trusted by the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to whom loyalty is the deciding factor. He is also rumored to be a relative of Khamenei’s wife.

Alireza Zakani, 58, is Tehran’s current Mayor. He is a medical doctor by education, and when he was a university student, he was the head of the Basiji [hardline] student organization. He was also a four-term Majles deputy. He too has been involved in multiple corruption cases, and, since his election as the capital city’s mayor, has been accused of nepotism by appointing his relatives to important posts — one reason, perhaps, why his tenure has generally been regarded as a failure. He was also a candidate for the presidential elections of 2013 and 2017, but was ruled ineligible by the Guardian Council each time.

Another hardline candidate is Saeed Jalili, 58, Iran’s former chief nuclear negotiator and secretary-general of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, as well as a former deputy foreign minister for Europe and the United States. He is currently Khamenei’s representative to the SNSC. He lost his right leg in the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. He is regarded as an ultra-hardliner who is highly unpopular because, as the nuclear negotiator, he is widely blamed for the referral by the International Atomic Energy Agency of Iran’s nuclear dossier to the United Nations Security Council, which subsequently approved six resolutions against Iran and which led in turn to Washington’s own harsh economic sanctions. He was a candidate in the 2013 presidential elections but received only 11 percent of the votes against the very popular moderate candidate, Hassan Rouhani and then ran gain in 2021 only to withdraw in favor of Raisi.

The hardline cleric Mostafa Pourmohammadi, 64, who served as both interior minister and justice minister is best known for his membership in the “death committee,” a group of four clerics and judges, including Raisi, who played the key role in the execution of close to 4,000 political prisoners in 1988 [including two close friends of mine, not to mention my brother and cousin, both university students, who were executed in, respectively, 1981 and 1985].

The final hardline candidate is Amir-Hossein Ghazi Zadeh Hashemi, 53, who is a medical doctor. Although he is not well known in the West, he served four terms in the Majles, including one term as deputy speaker. He was also a candidate in the 2021 elections but came in fourth in the number of votes received.

The surprise candidate is Masoud Pezeshkian, 69, who is a medical doctor and cardiologist. He is a reformist, and a five-term Majles deputy, including the current session. He was minister of health in the second administration of former reformist president Seyyed Mohammad Khatami (2001-2005). He is from a prominent family in west Azerbaijan province in northwestern Iran and has a solid reputation for being uncorrupted. During a student uprising in July 1999, he, spoke out in defense of the students as dean of the medical school at the University of Tabriz. He also harshly criticized the government, after Mahsa Amini, the young woman whose death while in the custody of the security forces sparked widespread demonstrations in Iran in September of 2022 that lasted for several months.

Many believe that Ghalibaf is Khamenei’s preferred candidate. He was also rumored to be his preferred candidate in 2005, but the behind-the-scenes support that he was receiving was suddenly withdrawn. It turned out later that he had been caught in a corruption case. As past elections in Iran have demonstrated, however, the outcome depends largely on turnout.

If the turnout is around 40 percent of eligible voters, as it was in the last two elections for the Majles in 2020 and again this year, as well as in the 2021 presidential election, one of the hardline candidates will most likely be elected given that they can rely on a solid social base of support amounting to about 20 percent of eligible voters and their ability to mobilize another 15-20 percent of voters through various means. In that case, Ghalibaf will have a good chance of succeeding the fourth time around.

If, however, the turnout is between 50 to 60 percent, then, it is likely that no candidate will receive more than 50 percent of the votes, and the top two vote-getters will advance to the second round. If the turnout is larger than 60 percent, which was the case for Khatami in 1997 and 2001 and Hassan Rouhani in 2013 and 2017, then Pezeshkian will have an excellent chance of winning.

A large turnout is possible only if the middle class, young people, and what is referred to Iran as the gray strata of the society — those who are usually silent but choose for a variety of reasons to vote or not vote — decide to vote. There is no question that a very large majority of Iranian people do not support the ruling hardline elite. They are rightly angry over deep economic corruption, suffocating social restrictions, and political repression. They demonstrated their anger by largely staying home in the last three national elections for the Majles and presidency.

Some analysts, including Abbas Abdi, a leading reformist and analyst, believe that a higher percentage of the people, which he estimated to be around 55 percent, may vote, because Raisi is widely regarded as a total failure in following up on his campaign promises to improve economic conditions for most Iranians, and the country needs a better, more competent, and less corrupt government that can come to power only through their votes. Since Pezeshkian is an Iranian Turk, he can help bringing out a significant portion of eligible ethnic voters in the northwest and western parts of the country. It is also widely expected that Khatami, who is still highly respected in Iran, will throw his support behind Pezeshkian, as will Rouhani. In a statement, 151 political activists and former officials, including former Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, called for a large turnout next month.

Hardline websites and other mouthpieces of the conservatives have already begun attacking Pezeshkian, which will likely help to further polarize the elections between the people and the hardliners and could well produce a backlash resulting in a larger turnout, as it has in the past.

If Pezeshkian is elected — and that is still a big if — Iran’s foreign policy will take on a more moderate tone, relations with European Union and cooperation with the IAEA regarding Iran’s nuclear program will improve, and, internally, a far more competent administration will run the country. This will not solve Iran’s long-term problems regarding its people’s aspiration for a democratic political system and respect for human rights, but it will provide a reprieve from years of instability, political tension, and economic incompetence.

Masoud Pezeshkian, a member of parliament speaks at a press conference after registering as a candidate for the presidential election at the Interior Ministry, in Tehran, Iran June 1, 2024. Majid Asgaripour/WANA (West Asia News Agency) via REUTERS

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