Don’t expect much

Most voters did not vote. That might or might not change in the second round. But, says Yassamine Mather, whatever happens, the supreme leader will remain in charge

According to figures released by Iran’s ministry of the interior, only 40% of the more than 61 million strong electorate voted in the first round of the presidential elections. Although this is a new low since 1979, it is still much higher than the last mid-term parliamentary elections, where only eight percent of the population voted in Tehran province, for example.

The apathy is understandable, given the overarching role of the supreme leader when it comes to major decisions - including any future agreement with the United States and the west regarding the country’s nuclear programme, an issue that will have a direct effect on sanctions and the country’s economy (currently inflation is over 40%).

It is also the failure of successive ‘reformist’ governments to bring about change. Although such administrations have more liberal attitudes on social issues, including the obligatory wearing of the hijab, they have repeatedly failed to defend even their supporters from repression. At the end of the day and at crucial historic times, even when their own freedom is challenged, as that of ‘reformist’ candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi and his wife’s freedom was in 2009-10, they remain faithful to the notion of an Islamic Republic and refuse to challenge the supreme leader - and, of course, the repetition of this scenario has rendered them ineffective and unpopular.

When it comes to economic polices, the ‘reformist’ unconditional support for the free market and neoliberal economic policies means they are as rightwing - if not further to the right in some respects - as the conservative factions. That is probably why the presence of a single ‘reformist’ candidate, Masoud Pezeshkian, in the first round of the presidential elections failed to attract larger numbers to vote.

In the second round, to be held on July 5, ‘reformist’ Masoud Pezeshkian, who won the most votes in the first round, will compete against the ‘hardliner’, Saeed Jalili. Out of a total of about 24.5 million votes, Pezeshkian got nearly 10.5 million and Jalili around 9.5 million.

Pezeshkian says he is Azeri (from Iran’s Turkish minority), although many of the inhabitants of Mahabad, where he was born, are Kurdish - as was, according to some websites, Pezeshkian’s mother. He was minister of health and medical education in the second ‘reformist’ government of president Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005).

After the disputed elections of 2009 he defended the protestors of the green movement, quoting the first Shi’ite imam, Ali ibn Abi Talib: “Do not treat people like wild animals.” Regarding 2018’s mass protests, he described state repression as “scientifically and intellectually wrong”. Following the 2022 protests, Pezeshkian called for the formation of a team to assess and clarify the incidents. Although he initially criticised the handling of the protestors and their trials as unconstitutional and insisted that defendants should have legal representation, he later issued a statement condemning the protests.
He argued that they had not been in the people’s best interest. Pezeshkian is also very loyal to the supreme leader - as he keeps reminding everyone.

His supporters will, however, point out that he is one of the few non-corrupt politicians in the Islamic Republic and, as far as I can tell, no-one denies the fact that he and his family live a modest life. He is supported by the Reform Front.

As for Jalili, he is often referred to by his supporters as a ‘living martyr’ - he lost part of his leg in the Iran-Iraq war during the siege of Basra. During Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency (2005‑13) he held important positions, such as secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, and was a nuclear negotiator. In the current elections his opponents refer to him as the embodiment of Iranian ‘Talebanism’ (referring to the Afghan ultra conservatives). Jalili describes himself as a firm believer in the Islamic Republic’s velayat-e faqih (rule by supreme jurisprudence) and claims he is ‘anti-western’ - his main slogan being ‘No compromise, no surrender’.

Of course, this outlook has been responsible for some of the most severe sanctions against the Islamic Republic without achieving anything in return. But, as always with Iran’s rulers, we should be aware of sloganeering often failing to match reality. Jalili claims to be a crusader against corruption, but some of the main beneficiaries of increased sanctions - those buying black-market goods and selling them at a much higher price - count amongst his most ardent supporters.

What next?

On July 1, Pezeshkian asked Jalili about the nuclear deal and the ‘reformist’ faction’s plans for negotiation with the west. Jalili said that he would not accept any compromise: “Iran should not be kept down by the three world powers.”

Israel’s interest in all this is very clear. If Iran votes for a warmonger, isolationist president on July 5, the rightwing Israeli government will find more allies for its plans to turn the cold war against Iran’s Islamic Republic into an actual one. This was confirmed by Deny Strionovich, former head of the Israel Defence Forces’ strategy and research, speaking to BBC Persian.

In an attempt to gain the support of the regime’s opponents - including the 60% who did not vote in the first round - Pezeshkian supported the right to protest: “When a teacher demonstrates, we hit him with a baton. We throw protesting pensioners into jail.” You should not retain power through “oppression”.

However, Pezeshkian’s most controversial comment was this challenge to Jalili: “I declare in front of these people, I will withdraw from the election today on the condition that [Jalili] agrees that if he does not achieve the eight percent growth he promises, he must be hanged.”

That comment caused Jalili to laugh, but the use of the word ‘hanged’ sparked a wide range of reactions among political figures and social media users, from serious comments and support for holding officials to account, to condemning the use of such language - not to mention the creation of a hashtag titled ‘No to Jalili’s Execution’!

However, a group of Pezeshkian’s supporters are saying that his use of the term is a rhetorical expression of his firm stance against corrupt officials. They point to other statements of his where, when he wants to assure his supporters that he will keep his promises, he uses the phrase, “I stake my neck on it”!

On the turnout in the first round, Pezeshkian pointed out that 60% of eligible voters did not participate. In other words, you may be elected by just 20% of those entitled to vote: “You can’t rule a country with 20% of the population!”

The problem with Pezeshkian’s argument is that even if he wins, he too will be in a similar situation - unless a miracle happens on Friday and a much larger section of the population votes.

Last week, as various Iranian consulates and embassies hosted ‘elections’ outside the country, some of Iran’s royalists took it upon themselves to physically attack women wearing headscarves who were about to vote! These supporters of the former shah are also often keen supporters of Israel,

As Hamid Dabbashi wrote in Middle East Eye,

The ongoing genocide in Gaza is a game-changer, a transformative event in world and regional history ... If the leading figure of an expat opposition actively sides with Israeli genocide in Palestine, then that entire cause has forever lost its legitimacy ... Reactionary monarchists are not the only party that has lost our current history. Significant factions of the Iranian left are equally plagued by a chronic Islamophobia afflicting their perception of Palestinian national liberation ... There can never be any democratic uprising anywhere in the world without active, open and principled solidarity with the Palestinian cause and steadfast opposition to the settler-colony and its successive acts of genocide. The pathetic and disgraceful Iranian opposition, manufactured in the US and Europe, has forever failed that test of credibility.1

In conclusion, irrespective of what happens on Friday, we should expect little change. Both Jalili and Pezeshkian confirm they will follow the supreme leader’s ‘guidance’ on important issues, including the future of the country’s nuclear programme. There are signs he might consider a compromise with the west - after all, he must have sanctioned the current talks between Iranian officials and representatives of the US state department in Oman.

When it comes to internal repression, a Pezeshkian presidency might bring some slight relaxation, especially when it comes to the hijab. However, the ‘reformists’ are unlikely to put forward any legislation accepting the right of women to choose how they dress. The ‘morality’ police may be advised to show more tolerance of ‘unIslamic’ behaviour, but Pezeshkian is part of the system that created these forces of repression. He will not disband them.

All in all, no-one expects much change, neither in internal nor foreign policy. No wonder there is such a widespread refusal to vote. The ‘opposition’ is just part of the regime.

  1. www.middleeasteye.net/opinion/iran-elections-gaza-genocide-expat-opposition-death-marked-how.↩︎