July 1, 2024

IntelBrief: Iran Election Indicates Trouble for the Regime

AP Photo/Vahid Salemi

Bottom Line Up Front

  • Regime leaders failed to obtain a high turnout or ensure the election of their favored candidate in the June 28 special presidential election.
  • The one reformist candidate in the race, Masoud Pezeshkian, drew the most votes and might be able to prevail in the July 5 runoff against regime stalwart Seyed Jalili.
  • Jalili presumably will consolidate the pro-regime vote in the runoff, and his election would ensure that Iran’s domestic repression and its existing national security policies continue unimpeded.
  • An unexpected Pezeshkian victory would ease domestic repression and ensure consistent and potentially productive dialogue with U.S. officials on outstanding issues.

Iran’s hardline Islamist regime had hoped that, by allowing at least one reform-minded candidate to run in the June 28 special election to replace the late Ibrahim Raisi, voters would turn out in large numbers to show support for the governing system and hardline candidates. To attract regime critics to the polls, the ruling establishment approved the candidacy of parliamentarian and heart surgeon Masoud Pezeshkian among a field of six approved candidates – narrowed from 80 figures who applied to run. Two hardliners dropped out in the days before the vote in an effort to improve the chances for the leading regime favorites – Majles (parliament) speaker Mohammad Baqr Qalibaf and former top nuclear negotiator Seyed Jalili – to avoid a runoff. With no candidate receiving 50%+1 of the votes, a runoff is scheduled for July 5.

The strategy of the senior leadership, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamene’i, fell short on several levels. Legions of voters who have come to distrust the electoral process and who perceived that even a reformist's election would not bring real change did not turn out on Friday. The turnout, officially reported as 40%, was even lower than that recorded in the Majles elections on March 1, which already was the lowest turnout of any major election since the formation of the Islamic Republic. And, of those who showed up at the polls, 1 million ballots were left blank and invalidated out of the more than 24 million ballots cast. In the aggregate, the voter participation levels and blank ballots represented a repudiation of regime policies, particularly its crackdown on critics and women who refuse to comply with laws requiring full head covering.

Further embarrassing regime leaders, even the low overall turnout did not stop a plurality of voters from supporting Pezeshkian, the one candidate most critical of regime policies and proposing the most significant policy alterations. Regime leaders had broadly calculated that Pezeshkian, as a little-known reformist, would garner scant support if many reformist voters stayed away from the polls. Many initially dismissed his candidacy as a thinly-veiled regime ploy to attract higher turnout. More prominent reformists, such as former First Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri, who had a far larger established following than Pezeshkian, were excluded from the race. Yet, even the relatively small number of voters who showed up at the polls did not support the hardline candidates clearly preferred by senior leaders.

When the votes were counted, and despite the paltry turnout, Pezeskhian, garnered a clear plurality – 10.4 million votes out of 23.4 million valid votes cast. His total was I million votes more than the next highest vote-getter, Seyed Jalili. His first-place finish came despite oblique warnings by Supreme Leader Khamene’i - clearly referring to Pezeshkian - that voters should be wary of candidates who advocate closer ties to the West. Qalibaf, whose candidacy received the most publicity on state media, leading many to conclude he was favored by the Supreme Leader, came in an unexpectedly weak third, receiving only 3.3 million votes. Another hardliner, Moustafa Pourmohammadi, the only Shia cleric in the race and a known hardliner having served previously as Interior Minister and Justice Minister, received a minuscule 206,000 votes.

The June 28 results present Iranians with the realistic possibility that the reformist Pezeshkian can be elected. Conventional wisdom suggests that the hardline vote will consolidate around Jalili in the July 5 runoff, providing him with more than enough votes to succeed Raisi, who perished in a helicopter accident on May 19. Jalili has pledged to continue all of Raisi’s policies. However, it can be argued that Pezeskhian only needs to draw in another 3 million pro-reform voters in order to prevail in the runoff. Jalili might not draw in additional conservative voters because hardline leaders did not call for a boycott of the initial round of voting. Growing the pool of reformist voters in the runoff, particularly now that Iranians perceive a reformist figure might be elected, is easier to envision.

The runoff sets the stage for Iranians to consider alternative futures, at least to a limited extent. Iranian presidents typically have limited latitude to shift national security and foreign policies. They have, however, historically exercised significant influence on economic policy. Yet, then-President Hassan Rouhani, by controlling the appointments to the critical post of Foreign Minister, was able to undertake substantive negotiations with six major powers, including the United States. In mid-2015, the talks reached agreement on a major accord, the JCPOA, that limited the scope of Iran’s nuclear program. The Supreme Leader and his top aides, universally hard line, accepted the agreement partly because it provided for extensive easing of U.S. secondary sanctions.

Jalili, who was chief nuclear negotiator prior to the Rouhani presidency, failed to produce a nuclear accord and, as a presidential candidate, denounced offering the concessions that would be required to restore full U.S. and Iranian adherence to the JCPOA. Jalili favors expanded ties with Russia and China to undermine perceived Western hegemony of the global financial and political system. He strongly supports continuing to arm and train Axis of Resistance factions around the region that are currently challenging Israel and the United States.

Pezeshkian has tapped advisers and surrogates that he believes might attract reformist voters to the polls – even those who continue to dismiss the prospects for real change. Midway through the brief campaign period, former Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif joined his team as his top adviser on foreign policy and national security. Zarif was Iran’s chief negotiator of the JCPOA, and he and Pezeshkian strongly support additional negotiations with the U.S. and other powers to reinstate that accord. His key role in achieving that pact has alienated Zarif from the hardliners dominating the regime's upper reaches.

Zarif’s presence at Pezeshkian’s side adds weight to the candidate’s claims he can lower tensions with the West and achieve the sweeping sanctions relief that will return the Iranian economy to significant growth. Still, lowering tensions with the West would require Iran to persuade its Axis of Resistance partners, such as Lebanese Hezbollah and the Houthis, to de-escalate their attacks on Israel and global shipping, respectively. It is not clear that Pezeshkian would have the authority, if elected, to bring about such a significant course correction in Iranian policy.

At the same time, Pezeshkian has sought to assuage the Supreme Leader’s concerns about him by pledging to appoint as his foreign minister, if elected, not Zarif but the less controversial Abbas Aragchi. A career diplomat and senior member of the team that negotiated the JCPOA, Aragchi negotiated with the U.S. and other world powers during 2021 to restore the JCPOA, before becoming an adviser to then-Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian, who was killed in the helicopter crash with Raisi.

Reformists hoping for a Pezeshkian victory also expect him, if elected, to ease enforcement of domestic repression, as he has pledged to do during his campaign. However, other presidents have, at times, sought to ease enforcement of such rules as the dress code for women in public, only to be overruled by the Supreme Leader and his top aides. It remains to be seen whether Pezeshkian could affect real change domestically in light of the continued insistence of top clerics, including Khamene’i, that the regime not compromise any of its core principles. Jalili could be expected to largely leave Raisi’s repressive policies in place, including those that caused the arrest of the young Mahsa Amini in September 2022, whose death in custody sparked a nationwide uprising for several months.