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Iranian voters picked a moderate president

Hussein Banai discusses Iran's power structure and the big takeaways from the 2024 presidential elections.

- July 8, 2024

On May 19, 2024, the helicopter carrying Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi crashed in inclement weather, killing him and several other senior officials. This triggered early presidential elections, which took place in two rounds on June 28 and July 5. 

Electoral authorities announced the results on July 6. Masoud Pezeshkian, the moderate candidate on the ballot, won the runoff round with 54.7 percent, defeating ultraconservative candidate Saeed Jalili. 

To consider the election and its implications, Good Authority contributor Christopher Clary spoke with Hussein Banai, an associate professor of international studies at Indiana University and the author or co-author of several books on contemporary Iran, including Republics of Myth: National Narratives and the US-Iran Conflict and Hidden Liberalism: Burdened Visions of Progress in Modern Iran

Christopher Clary: Before I ask about the winner, how would you describe the role of the presidency in the Iranian political system? 

Hussein Banai: The constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran grants the president and his cabinet “the functions of the executive, except in matters that are directly placed under the jurisdiction of the Office of the Supreme Leader” (Article 60). Although the president has authority over some executive functions – e.g., setting and managing the national budget, staffing ministries, signing treaties and contracts, dispatching and receiving ambassadors, etc. – the ultimate political and juridical authority rests with the office of the supreme leader. 

For instance, “the leader” (as he’s referred to in the system) delineates and supervises “the general [domestic and foreign] policies of the system,” is the “supreme commander” of the armed forces, and has the power to appoint or dismiss the heads of the armed forces, the judiciary, clerical membership of the Guardian Council, state radio and television networks, and chief commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (Article 110).

So while Iran’s president has influence over the management of government ministries and the economy, the office of the leader supervises the substance and direction of the most sensitive policy portfolios.

My sense is that in the Iranian electoral system, much of the interesting political maneuvering takes place before the elections – specifically, which candidates are permitted to run. Do you agree? Could you describe the pre-poll process and anything interesting that stood out to you here? 

Yes, indeed. As an elected institution, the presidency is meant to provide the system with a degree of popular legitimacy. However, the 12 clerics and jurists on the Guardian Council control the names on the presidential ballot. And the council’s arbitrary criteria and unexplained decisions render the process fundamentally undemocratic. Still, even within this tightly controlled political space, various socio-political factions can assert their views and preferences,and serve as a barometer of public attitudes towards Iran’s political system. 

Typically, the Guardian Council approves no more than five or six candidates out of a pool of approximately 600 to 1,000 applicants. Given the short timespan following Raisi’s death, only 80 individuals petitioned to be considered. Among the notable figures whom the Guardian Council rejected were former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, former Speaker of the Parliament and chief nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani, and Vahid Haghanian, a former personal aide to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. 

In the end, the Guardian Council approved six candidates. Of these six, one conservative (former IRGC commander and current Speaker of Parliament Mohammad Baqer Ghalibaf), one ultraconservative (former nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili), and one moderate (Masoud Pezeshkian, a former health minister and parliamentarian) emerged as serious contenders

What were some of the big issues during the brief campaign period? 

A familiar bevvy of issues dominated the contentious televised debates and stump speeches during the campaign: corruption, economic mismanagement, social restrictions on the youth and women, diplomatic relations with the West, addressing Western sanctions, stemming the tide of outward migration and endemic brain drain, and environmental degradation. Even the conservative candidates didn’t shy away from accusing one another of nepotism, corruption, and incompetence. But the testy exchanges of views mostly served to expose the distance between Iran’s political elites and the people. 

In this respect, the most dominant feature in this election was the general sense of voter apathy. Among the public and in the diaspora, the key issue was whether to boycott the election altogether or to channel discontent against the conservative management of the regime – and the political system – by voting for the moderate or reformist candidate. The first round of voting drove this point home with the lowest turnout in the 45-year history of the Islamic Republic, at just 40 percent. 

In the second-round runoff, foreign policy and the economy dominated the debate between Jalili and Pezeshkian – the two candidates with the highest number of votes in the first round. Pezeshkian argued for engagement and diplomacy with the West as a way of breaking out of “the cage” in which conservative policies had placed the country. He vowed to negotiate on Iran’s nuclear program to lift the crippling economic sanctions that have rendered any national economic planning a meaningless exercise. 

What was turnout like in the second round?

The turnout for the July 5 runoff was higher than in the first round of voting, with slightly under 50 percent of the electorate participating. The sharp contrast between Pezeshkian’s moderate approach and Jalili’s uncompromising ultraconservative style likely convinced some disaffected voters to participate in the second round. 

Pezeshkian prevailed in the runoff election, capturing 16.3 million votes (54.7%) compared to Jalili’s 13.5 million votes (45.3%). 

What do we know about the winner? What does this mean for Iranian politics, in your view? 

Masoud Pezeshkian is a 71-year-old heart surgeon and parliamentarian who previously served as the health minister in President Mohammad Khatami’s reformist government (1997 – 2005). Unlike many reformists and moderates who have been forcibly sidelined or jailed because of their vocal opposition to regime crackdowns following public protests, he has largely adhered to the red lines of the system. He seemed to master the art of political doublespeak in Iranian politics – signaling loyalty to the political system and especially the supreme leader, yet pushing to loosen social and political restrictions.

The impact of Pezeshkian’s win will likely be similar to that of Hassan Rouhani’s presidency. Rouhani, a moderate pragmatist, pursued technocratic governance at home and diplomatic engagement abroad from 2013 to 2021. But remember that the office of the supreme leader determines the substance of major policies like Iran’s nuclear program, and Iran’s involvement in Lebanon and Syria, for instance. The real test of Pezeshkian’s political acumen, ultimately, will be whether he can protect civil liberties and open the political space for dissent and change. Both Rouhani and Khatami failed to achieve this in the past. 

Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is 85 and rumored to be in poor health. Do these election results tell us anything about the likely succession struggle to replace him?  

Not much. The election results, however, reflect a familiar reality since Khamenei’s ascendance to the leadership position in 1989. Iran has a rigid political structure impermeable to change, and a disaffected public that increasingly has lost faith in the possibility of internal reform. This paradox, more than anything else, will loom large over any post-Khamenei succession crisis.