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Iran presidential election run-off: Who is likely to win?

Shabnam von Hein
July 4, 2024

Iranians will vote on Friday in a presidential run-off pitting the relatively moderate Masoud Pezeshkian against ultraconservative, anti-Western former nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili.

Saeed Jalili (l) and Masoud Pezeshkian (r) shake hands
Saeed Jalili (l) is an ultraconservative former nuclear negotiator, while Masoud Pezeshkian (r), a cardiac surgeon, has been a member of the Iranian parliament since 2008Image: Iranian State Tv/ZUMAPRESS/picture alliance

In the first round of the presidential elections in Iran, held on June 28, no candidate was able to win over 50% of the vote, the threshold for securing victory, necessitating a run-off vote, which is scheduled for Friday.  

The two leading contestants in the first round will be on the ballot: Masoud Pezeshkian, who secured 42.5% of the vote in the first round, and Saeed Jalili, who received 38.7%.

Pezeshkian is considered the relatively moderate candidate among the six contestants approved by the Islamic Republic's Guardian Council, a panel of Islamic clerics and jurists, to run for the election.

Pezeshkian had wanted to run for the presidency in 2021 but the panel rejected his candidacy at the time.

Some see the council's decision to allow him to run for president this time around as a tactic to draw in more people to cast their ballots, in a bid to secure legitimacy for the vote.

But this move does not appear to have been successful, as evidenced by the record-low voter turnout of just 40% in the first round, the lowest figure since the Islamic Revolution in 1979.

Voter turnout plummets in Iran's presidential election

Will the turnout be higher in the run-off vote?

"It is unlikely that voter turnout will be much higher in the run-off election on Friday," said Hamidreza Azizi, an expert on Middle East affairs at the Berlin-based German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP).

"Masoud Pezeshkian has neither managed to mobilize reform-oriented voters, nor have the hard-liners been able to mobilize many voters. The hardliners are also so divided that they were unable to agree on a candidate."

Of the about 61 million Iranians eligible to vote, just over 13 million cast their ballots in the first round for the three hardline candidates: the ultraconservative Saeed Jalili, the incumbent speaker of parliament Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, and the Islamic cleric Mostafa Pourmohammadi.

The question now is whether the conservative camp will be able to mobilize its supporters to vote for Jalili in the run-off. 

Qalibaf and two other conservative candidates have already called on their supporters to cast their votes for Jalili.

But SWP expert Azizi said the call will likely not work. "Not all of Qalibaf's voters will now vote for Jalili," he said, adding: "His ultraconservative stance could lead to even some of the traditional supporters of the Islamic Republic voting for Pezeshkian."

How powerful is Iran really?

Who is Saeed Jalili?

Jalili, 58, is Iran's former nuclear negotiator, known for his uncompromising anti-West stance. He is considered the lead candidate of the hardline, ultraconservative camp.

Under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who served as president from 2005 to 2013, he was deputy foreign minister handling relations with Europe and South America — and thus involved in the failure of the international nuclear negotiations at the time.

A nuclear deal between Iran and world powers was only successfully concluded under Ahmadinejad's successor, Hassan Rouhani.

The pact has been in limbo since former president Donald Trump pulled the US out of the accord in 2018.

Jalili remains against normalization of Iran's relations with the West and instead insists on the expansion of strategic cooperation with Russia.

The archconservative politician has long eyed the presidency, but he has never been the favorite of the hardliners.

In the 2013 presidential election, he came in third, winning just 11% of the vote.

In 2021, he withdrew his candidacy in favor of the late president Ebrahim Raisi.

Raisi's death in a helicopter crash in May made it necessary to hold early elections.

Pezeshkian pledges loyalty to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei

During the election campaign, Pezeshkian pledged his loyalty to Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

In Iran's theocratic Islamic regime, the president is not the head of state, but the head of government, despite being elected by universal suffrage.

Most authority lies with the country's supreme leader, who since 1989 has been Khamenei.

In 2021, Khamenei had criticized the Guardian Council's decision to disqualify Pezeshkian from running for the presidency.

In his campaign rallies, Pezeshkian expressed his gratitude for this support and emphasized that he would not allow anyone to insult the religious leader.

At the same time, Pezeshkian has sought to win over disheartened supporters of the reformist camp.

The 69-year-old politician vowed to build trust between a "possible moderate government" and the population.

Pezeshkian, a heart surgeon, has been a member of the Iranian parliament since 2008.

He served as the country's health minister from 2001 to 2005 under then-president Mohammad Khatami, known as a reformist figure.

"If we assume that the official figures are correct and have not been corrected upwards, we can see that 60% of Iranians who are eligible to vote have not voted [in the first round]. I don't think they — especially the women among them — will go to the polls this Friday," said Aliyeh Motallebzadeh, a photo journalist based in Tehran.

Motallebzadeh, who is vice president of the Iranian Association to Defend Press Freedom, has been arrested several times in recent years for her work and commitment to women's rights — most recently from October 2022 to February 2023.

"During the election campaign, all candidates, who are all part of the establishment and have held important positions at various levels, concealed or even denied the systematic oppression of women," she said.

"They talked as if they had always been in the opposition and had no part in the daily humiliation of women in this country. And I'm not just talking about the compulsory headscarf for women, which is just the tip of the iceberg, but about their discrimination at all levels of society because of their gender," Motallebzadeh told DW.

The silent majority

A recent report by the World Economic Forum (WEF) reveals the extent to which women are disadvantaged in Iran due to their gender.

In the Global Gender Gap Report 2023, it is ranked 143rd out of 146 countries, underscoring how Iranian women and girls face unequal opportunities in education, health, business and politics.

In the power structures of Iran's clergy-dominated political sphere, women have little to no representation.

They cannot become religious leaders. They are not allowed to run for president. They are excluded from the judiciary. Women are not allowed to sit on the important committees of the Council of Experts, the Guardian Council and the Arbitration Council.

Only 14 of the 290 members of parliament are currently female — all of them strictly religious.

"The bitter experiences of the past have convinced many women that no president will stand up for their rights. The brutal suppression of protests in recent years, especially the protests with the slogan 'Woman, Life, Freedom' after the death of Jina Mahsa Amini, as well as the executions and arrests that continue to this day, have left very deep, fresh wounds," said Motallebzadeh.

"The majority of Iranian society, which did not vote, is united in silence. The political system can no longer deny this rejection."

This article was originally written in German.