Reformist Masoud Pezeshkian faces hardliner Saeed Jalili

Polls open in Iran’s presidential run-off election, amid widespread voter apathy

First round saw lowest voter turnout since revolution in 1979; next president will be closely involved in selecting successor to supreme leader, the ultimate authority in Iran

Combination of photos showing Iranian presidential election candidates Masoud Pezeshkian, left, and Saeed Jalili, a hard-line former senior nuclear negotiator, during their campaigns, in Tehran, Iran. (AP/Vahid Salemi)
Combination of photos showing Iranian presidential election candidates Masoud Pezeshkian, left, and Saeed Jalili, a hard-line former senior nuclear negotiator, during their campaigns, in Tehran, Iran. (AP/Vahid Salemi)

Polls opened in Iran on Friday in a presidential run-off election between reformist Masoud Pezeshkian and ultraconservative Saeed Jalili following a record-low turnout in the first round.

While the election will have little impact on the Islamic Republic’s policies, the president will be closely involved in selecting the successor to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s 85-year-old supreme leader who calls all the shots in top state matters.

The election came amid heightened regional tensions, as Israel— which the Islamic Republic has vowed to destroy— fights Hamas in the Gaza Strip and Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, two terror groups both backed by Iran.

War broke out between Israel and Hamas on October 7 of last year, when thousands of terrorists invaded southern Israel from the Gaza Strip, killing some 1,200 people and taking 251 hostages.

Hezbollah-led forces began attacking Israeli communities and military posts along the Israel-Lebanon border on a near-daily basis following the attack, prompting retaliatory strikes by Israel, in ongoing exchanges that threaten to escalate into full-scale war.

Iran also carried out its first-ever open, direct attack on Israel in April, launching some 300 missiles and drones at the country in retaliation for an Israeli airstrike in Syria that killed several Iranian generals.

Supporters of the reformist candidate in Iran’s presidential election, Masoud Pezeshkian, shown in the poster, attend a campaign rally in Tehran, Iran, Wednesday, July 3, 2024. (AP/Vahid Salemi)

Almost all the projectiles were intercepted by Israel and its Western allies, and no one was killed, though one 7-year-old girl was seriously injured.

The election also came amid international alarm over Iran’s nuclear program, after the country barred international inspectors from its nuclear sites and increased its enrichment of uranium.

In the first round of the election last week, Masoud Pezeshkian, who was the only reformist permitted to stand, won the largest number of ballots, around 42 percent, with the former nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili came in second place with 39 percent, according to figures from Iran’s elections authority.

Only 40% of Iran’s 61 million eligible voters turned up at the polls — the lowest turnout in any presidential election since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

The hashtag #ElectionCircus has been widely posted on social media platform X since last week, with some activists at home and abroad calling for an election boycott, arguing that a high turnout would legitimize the Islamic Republic.

Many young Iranians fervently oppose the country’s theocratic government, and the country has seen several major protest movements in recent years.

The country was racked by civil unrest in 2022-2023 sparked by the death in custody of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman who was arrested by Iran’s “morality police” for violating the country’s compulsory hijab law.

On Wednesday, Khamenei, who wields ultimate authority in Iran, called for a higher turnout in the runoff election.

“The second round of the presidential election is very important,” he said in a video carried by state TV. He said participation was “not as expected” in the first round but that it was not an act “against the system.”

Last week’s vote saw the conservative parliament speaker Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf come in third place with 13.8 percent, while cleric Mostafa Pourmohammadi garnered less than one percent.

Iran’s presidential election was originally scheduled for 2025 but was brought forward by the death of ultraconservative president Ebrahim Raisi in a helicopter crash in May.

In this photo made available by Iranian state-run TV, IRIB, Iranian presidential candidate reformist Masoud Pezeshkian, left, speaks during a debate with hard-line candidate Saeed Jalili at the TV studio in Tehran, Iran, Tuesday, July 2, 2024. (Morteza Fakhri Nezhad/IRIB via AP)

The rival candidates in the runoff have held two debates, in which they discussed Iran’s economic woes, international relations, the low voter turnout and internet restrictions.

Both candidates have vowed to revive the flagging economy, beset by mismanagement, state corruption and sanctions reimposed since 2018 after the US ditched Tehran’s 2015 nuclear pact with six world powers.

Pezeshkian is a 69-year-old heart surgeon who has represented the northwestern city of Tabriz in parliament since 2008.

He has earned the support of Iran’s main reformist coalition, with former reformist presidents Mohammad Khatami and Hassan Rouhani declaring their backing for his bid.

Jalili, 58, rallied a substantial base of hardline supporters and received backing from Ghalibaf and two other ultraconservative candidates who dropped out of the race before the first round.

In one recent debate, the rivals expressed dismay over turnout in the first round.

On Tuesday, Pezeshkian said people were “fed up with their living conditions… and dissatisfied with the government’s management of affairs.”

Supporters of Saeed Jalili, a candidate for the Iran’s presidential election, attend his campaign meeting in Tehran, Iran, Monday, June 24, 2024. (AP/Vahid Salemi)

Ali, a 24-year-old university student who asked that only his first name be used, said the better choice is Pezeshkian, whom he believes would work on “opening the country to the rest of the world.”

Pezeshkian has called for “constructive relations” with Washington and European countries in order to “get Iran out of its isolation.”

Jalili, known for his uncompromising anti-West position, has insisted that Tehran does not need the 2015 nuclear deal with the United States and other world powers to make progress.

The deal — which Jalili said violated all Iran’s “red lines” by allowing inspections of nuclear sites — had imposed curbs on Iran’s nuclear activity in return for sanctions relief.

At a campaign event late Wednesday, 40-year-old Maryam Naroui said she believed Jalili was “the best option for the country’s security.”

Jalili has held several senior positions in the Islamic Republic, including in Khamenei’s office in the early 2000s.

He is currently one of Khamenei’s representatives in the Supreme National Security Council, Iran’s highest security body.

Regardless of the result, Iran’s next president will be in charge of applying state policy outlined by the supreme leader, who wields ultimate authority in the country.

Most Popular
read more: