A shorter version of this piece appeared in this week's Monday Briefing.

On June 28, Iran held its third election in the span of just four months — the quickest tempo since the 1906 constitutional revolution, which mandated that the authorities hold regular general elections. Iranians cast ballots for the Majlis (parliament) in March and May, and voted in the first round of presidential elections on June 28. A fourth contest, the presidential runoff, is scheduled for July 5. And yet the opposite of election fervor has gripped the country.

The June 28 election made history by setting a new record low for turnout. The lowest presidential turnout until this election was in 2021, at 48%. This time around, official data suggests 39.9% of voters cast a ballot on June 28, but the real figure could easily be lower. Participation is unlikely to rise in the second round, on July 5, but where turnout will end up is the million-dollar question.

A litmus test

The supporters of the two candidates left in the race, Masoud Pezeshkian from the reformist-moderate camp and Saeed Jalili from the ultra-hardline camp, are scrambling to create voter excitement. Speaking on July 3, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, called the runoff a litmus test for the regime and its integrity.

The sobriety of his statement reflects the deep concern within the regime, which knows that the 60% of eligible voters who did not come out on June 28 were expressing opposition to the regime writ large and not just the presidential candidates that Khamenei had approved to run. It was a deliberate boycott. Khamenei pretends that the low turnout “was a surprise and against expectations” and that “political scientists and sociologists” will have to carry out research to explain it. 

That is a red herring. Khamenei knows exactly why so many voters have boycotted the race: It makes little difference who is president in the Islamic Republic since the Presidential Palace plays second fiddle to the vastly more powerful Office of the Supreme Leader, a role the unelected Khamenei has held since 1989.

The presidential campaign

This basic reality was underscored repeatedly during the presidential campaign. All six of the candidates that were approved by the Guardian Council, including the two that made it to the runoff, declared their loyalty to Khamenei and his strategic worldview, and at no point during the race did anyone openly question his stewardship of the political order.

In short, no one touched on the sensitive issues that are at the root of the laundry list of grievances that the Iranian public wrestles with on a daily basis. In terms of domestic policies, candidates spoke about the need to tackle corruption and rampant nepotism, but no one mentioned that Khamenei has, over the years, made sure that his political allies implicated in corruption are given a pass time and again.  

The judicial branch in Iran would, after all, never take action against Khamenei’s wishes. No candidate admitted that corruption in Iran is systemic in nature and that addressing it would require a fundamental overhaul of how the Islamic Republic works. By some accounts, Khamenei’s office controls around 60% of Iran’s national wealth.

On the status of women, candidates spoke about the need to respect them, but no one mentioned that the most unpopular measures affecting women — most notably mandatory veiling — reflect Khamenei’s known non-negotiable policy choices and will not change as long as he remains the leader.

On foreign policy, no candidate questioned Khamenei’s ideological enmity toward the United States, Israel, and the West in general. The most radical view that was expressed came from Pezeshkian, who spoke about the benefits of seeking to reduce tensions with Iran’s adversaries, a stance that, in the eyes of hardliners like Jalili, marks him as a defeatist who does not believe in Iranian self-determination. 

Overall, the scope of the several-week-long campaign, which included numerous live presidential debates, was embarrassing. Candidates limited themselves to debating issues like the price of milk or how many housing units they would build as president, while the most obvious domestic and foreign policy challenges were left unaddressed. This lack of sincerity and vision contrasts sharply with Iran’s neighbors, which, while mostly not democracies, are busy planning for their long-term national development and post-oil economies. 

The final stretch

In the leadup to the vote on July 5, taunting Pezeshkian as a closet liberal — a derogatory term in the vernacular of the Islamic Republic — has become the norm. Pro-hardline media have sought to cast him as detached from the basic realities of life in Iran and preoccupied with what they call trivial issues, like the mandatory veil, the public’s right to high-speed internet, or the need to compromise with Western powers. Khamenei greenlighted all of this when, during the campaign, he repeatedly hinted that his preferred president would be a “revolutionary,” meaning someone who will not stray from the regime’s “red lines.”

But evidently Iranian voters do not believe any elected president can challenge Khamenei in the present setup, and that explains why they chose to boycott the June 28 election. There is plenty of reason to be cynical. Iranian voters can point to two other presidential elections — in 1997 and in 2013 — when Mohammad Khatami and Hassan Rouhani won the majority vote on the promise of political change, only to fail to stand up to Khamenei. Even if Pezeshkian wins on July 5, the average Iranian would consider the outcome as merely the better of two bad options. Nothing major is likely to change in Iran while Khamenei is in charge.

All that said, the lead-up to the July 5 election has not been without its commotion along the intra-regime reformist-hardline faultlines. The reformist-moderate camp is panicking that Jalili might prevail. Alarm bells are going off that a Jalili win will turn Iran into a North Korea-style hermit kingdom or something akin to a Shi’a version of the impoverished, Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. This is an exaggeration. A Jalili presidency will be very similar to that of Ebrahim Raisi, made up of officials that secure their jobs on the basis of their factional loyalty, not their competence. 

There will be policy stances that are bunglingly uncompromising both on the domestic and foreign policy fronts. As Pezeshkian supporters, such as former President Rouhani, have been busy pointing out, the ideological and intransigent foreign policy during Raisi’s three years in office cost Iran $300 billion in sanctions, and more such financial ruin can be expected if Jalili enters the Presidential Palace. But then again, Khamenei’s role in the nuclear affair cannot be mentioned, as open criticism of the supreme leader is considered beyond the pale.

Should Pezeshkian win, the best he can do is to go back to where Rouhani left off three years ago. In other words, an attempt will again be made to reach a new nuclear deal with the West, but the question will be whether Khamenei will sign off on it once more, like he did in 2015. That is no small feat, should it happen, but for the average Iranian, a new nuclear deal in itself is no panacea. Iranians remember what happened last time around, when the initial enthusiasm after a deal was signed was followed by disappointment as the Khamenei-led regime otherwise held firm to its ideological agenda. It was a tactical shift, not a strategic turning point, and the Iranian public knows this full well. 

In fact, it seems as though the Iranian public is purposely egging on Khamenei to go ahead and install the excruciatingly ideologically puritan Jalili as his president. That might, after all, be the sort of audacity that could put the Iranian nation at a crossroads. In such a scenario, the implication is as clear as day: Political change in the Islamic Republic can only happen if the streets once again erupt. If so, Khamenei will have no one to blame but himself.

For now, it is a waiting game. On June 28, Pezeshkian secured 10.4 million votes against Jalili’s 9.4 million. Another hardline candidate, Mohammad Qalibaf, got 3.4 million. Will Qalibaf’s supporters all go to Jalili or will many of those who boycotted the first round come out to vote on July 5 in fear of a Jalili presidency, despite the huge reservations so many Iranians have about the value of voting in the Islamic Republic? Only time will tell. 


Alex Vatanka is the director of the Iran Program at the Middle East Institute and a senior fellow with MEI’s Black Sea Program.

Photo by Fatemeh Bahrami/Anadolu via Getty Images

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