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Thursday, July 18, 2024

‘The journey isn’t over’: A reformist won the first round, but who will become president of Iran?

RT correspondent Abbas Juma observed the voting in Tehran

Hosseiniyeh Ershad in Tehran is not just a religious site for Shiite Muslims, but also one of Iran’s most renowned political venues. Before the 1979 revolution, prominent Iranian intellectual and revolutionary Ali Shariati delivered his fiery speeches against Shah Pahlavi here. On Friday, starting at 8am, this beautiful building with its turquoise dome hosted the largest and oldest polling station in the country.

Tehran residents began lining up at the gates as early as 7am, and the crowd only grew despite the 30-degree heat, blazing sun, and dry air. The turnout was so high that voting hours were extended until midnight. People came to vote with their entire families, bringing elderly relatives in wheelchairs and infants in their arms. A video circulating online showed a legless Iranian man literally crawling to the ballot box.

“Tell your readers these elections are special for us. Today, Iranians are proving to the world that no enemy can break us. Neither sanctions nor the death of our president will shake our resolve,” said a voter who had arrived first and stood at the front of the long line. In one hand, she held a photo of the Supreme Leader and the late President Raisi, and in the other, a document verifying her participation in every election. Her presence made it clear she was voting for someone who would continue the previous president’s conservative and religious path. And she wasn’t alone in this sentiment.

©  Abbas Juma

“These elections are more important to me than bread,” Ahmad Yazdan Shimrani told reporters. “The people will vote for the revolutionary course. We support the revolution; we are devout Muslims, and we will not let our leader down.”

However, there were dissenting voices.

Nearby, a young man shook his head, clearly disagreeing with the fervent rhetoric of the conservative voters.

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A woman casts her ballot at a polling station in Tehran during the presidential election in Iran.
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“Do you think differently?” I asked.

“Don’t you? Listen, these people have been giving us grand speeches for years, but where are the results? Where is the economic growth? The end of unemployment? The lifting of sanctions? I’m 26, and I’ve lived my whole life in isolation, just like my parents. Despite having a bachelor’s degree, I’m stuck with low-paying gigs. What should I do? Leave? I don’t want to; I love my country, my family, and friends are here. That’s why I’m voting.”

“I think I know for whom…”

“Of course, for Mr. Masoud Pezeshkian. We need to give something new a chance. Otherwise, nothing will change.”

It might seem that only angry youth are voting for the reformist candidate, but that’s not the case. Some older citizens and even religious figures are supporting the liberal candidate. At the polling station, I met Ayatollah Hadi Ghaffari.

“I’m voting for Dr. Masoud Pezeshkian. For the dignity of Iran and the comfort of the Iranian people,” he said as he cast his ballot.

Hosseiniyeh Ershad

©  Abbas Juma

How Elections Are Organized in Iran

The President of the Islamic Republic of Iran is elected via a direct popular vote for a four-year term. To win, a candidate must secure over 50% of the vote. If no candidate achieves this majority, as happened this time, a runoff election is held.

Voters arrive at polling stations with their ID cards, receive a stamped ballot, and write in the name of their chosen candidate. After casting their vote, they get their documents back. It all seems straightforward, much like any democratic process. However, these elections in the Islamic Republic have a deeper significance.

On election day, people came in droves, many carrying portraits of the late President Ebrahim Raisi, linking their hopes for the future with his administration’s legacy. The day before, during the customary pre-election quiet period, Iran mourned once more, marking 40 days since the tragic helicopter crash. Tehran was covered with images of the politicians who perished on May 19, 2024, including banners depicting the late president and foreign minister in paradise. Some posters even showed Raisi embracing Qasem Soleimani, the general killed by the Americans in Iraq in 2020. The city was steeped in symbolism, invoking themes of eternal life and higher purpose.

At Hosseiniyeh Ershad, representatives from various religions gathered to cast their votes. Among them were a rabbi, Zoroastrians, and priests from the Armenian Apostolic Church. 

©  Abbas Juma

Interestingly, out of all the candidates, only Mostafa Pourmohammadi chose to vote at Hosseiniyeh Ershad. The others opted to cast their ballots in the poorer southern districts of Tehran.

Participation is Key

Voter turnout is the cornerstone of legitimate presidential elections. To boost participation in Iran, authorities have created an exceptionally convenient voting process, ensuring complete transparency and freedom for both candidates and voters. People are free to criticize, accuse, and propose — some even do this right outside polling stations. This open environment aims to reignite Iranians’ interest in their country’s politics and restore voter trust.

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“There’s no shortage of political talent in Iran. The real issue is that half the population doesn’t vote,” shared a polling station official. “Honestly, I’m pleased with the current turnout.”

In what might be an effort to further increase voter engagement, journalists have also been given all the support they need this time around. According to officials at the polling station, around 150 foreign media outlets, including Western ones typically critical of the Islamic Republic’s leadership, were present. They were provided with the necessary facilities and closely monitored to ensure that voters were not pressured and that their reports remained accurate and free from provocations or distortions.

Here’s an SMS I received on my Iranian SIM card from the Ministry of the Interior:

“To avoid getting caught in criminal situations, be cautious and avoid falling for fake information online. Verify the authenticity, date, and source of any news before publishing.”

What Iranians Want

“By far the most important issue for Iranians according to polls is the economy,” Mohammad Marandi, a prominent Iranian analyst, told RT. “Polls say that jobs, inflation, and the economy are by far the most important issues. Foreign policy and internal issues, they are not really all that big and that’s why the candidates spent most of their time talking about the economy during the 20 hours of direct debates and the many other hours that each had on television.”

Abbas Juma with Mohammad Marandi

©  Abbas Juma

— Do you really think Iranian society is so deeply divided between conservative and reformist camps?

— There is no real unified reformist camp or conservative camp or ‘principalist camp’, as they themselves call it. As you’ve seen, two of the three main candidates are supposedly principalists or conservative and they failed to unite. The reformist camp is very diverse. There’s a lot of overlap between moderate reformists and moderate principalists or conservatives. I think there’s probably a lot, maybe just as much in common between [Mohammad Bagher] Ghalibaf, who is the Speaker of Parliament, and Dr. Pezeshkian, the mild reformist. There’s just as much similarity between them as there would be in other areas between Dr. Ghalibaf and Dr. Jalili. So the three of them are different from each other, and I think that reflects a diversity, a large diversity. I really don’t think that we can say that Iran is divided into two camps. There are many, many different subgroups and Iranian politics is very fluid.

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A Religious Perspective

A mere 150 kilometers separate Tehran from the sacred Shiite city of Qom, a two-hour drive that transports you to a distinctly different Iran: one that’s austere and deeply religious. Here, it’s not uncommon for someone to reprimand a woman for immodest attire or a loosely worn hijab. Unlike the bustling, secular capital, discussions about politics with foreigners are rare in Qom, especially on camera. The overall atmosphere feels much stricter, perhaps due to the heightened religiosity, by Islamic Republic standards, or the intense 40-degree heat that seems capable of melting stones. It’s no surprise that most residents spend their days resting and praying in the cool comfort of mosques, shaded from the sun.

In this city, within a residential building, lies the media center of esteemed Azerbaijani scholars. One of the most prominent and respected Hujjat al-Islam (a title in Shi’ism), Qurban Mirzahanov, invited me there. He agreed to offer his theological perspective on the results of the first round of presidential elections.

“Pezeshkian does not follow a political stance approved by Islam,” Mirzahanov states. “Even the Quran advises relying only on our own strength. If you make concessions to an enemy, they’ll demand more and never be satisfied. This is exactly what happened during Hassan Rouhani’s presidency. They initially made concessions to the West on the nuclear program, but the West immediately demanded more in the missile program. And even if Iran concedes everything, there’s no guarantee that life will improve for the Iranian people.”

Abbas Juma with Qurban Mirzahanov

©  Abbas Juma

“Regarding Pezeshkian, despite being a reformist, he’s also a revolutionary. I believe his approach is flawed, but he is not a representative of secular or openly counter-revolutionary forces.”

— Do the people of Iran share your views?

— People here often get emotional. They complain about economic issues, which is understandable. But beyond emotions, statistics show that a significant portion of the population still supports the ideology of the Islamic Revolution. There are fierce critics, typically among the youth and celebrities, but they are far from being the majority.

— Hijabs were a major focus in the election debates. This issue now transcends religious ethics and has entered the realm of politics. Do you think there’s a possibility that mandatory hijabs will be abolished in Iran?

— Some segments of society do demand this change. After the recent protests, authorities in Tehran and other places have started turning a blind eye to women’s appearances. However, I doubt that even if reformists take power, they would repeal the hijab law. The hijab has become a symbol of the Revolution. Due to the actions of the US and EU, it’s unlikely that Iranian women will abandon it. For them, it’s no longer just a piece of religious attire imposed on them. It has evolved into a political symbol, a cause for which their grandfathers, fathers, brothers, and husbands shed blood.

©  Abbas Juma

What’s Next?

The runoff will see the two candidates who garnered the most votes: Pezeshkian (42.5%) and Jalili (38.7%). Campaigning continues until 8am on Thursday, July 4th, with the election taking place on Friday, July 5th.

Ghalibaf, having exited the race, has urged his supporters to back Jalili:

“The journey isn’t over. While I respect Mr. Pezeshkian, due to certain individuals around him, I ask all revolutionary forces and my supporters to help prevent a return to power of those responsible for Iran’s current economic and political issues,” he stated. This alignment gives the conservative bloc a combined 52.4% of the vote, while reformists hold 42.45%.

A victory for Jalili would be a logical continuation of the process that began in 2021 with the election of former judiciary chief Ebrahim Raisi as president. Recall that this occurred after reformists had received significant public trust, initially leading to promising developments like the JCPOA agreement, which seemed to be lifting the country out of sanctions. However, the arrival of Donald Trump in the White House abruptly ended years of efforts to mend relations with the Islamic Republic.

Thus, if the conservative wins on July 5th, it will largely be due to the actions of the US and Europe. Such an outcome would solidify traditionalist control at both the presidential and parliamentary levels.

Should Pezeshkian emerge victorious, reformists will have another chance to prove their approach isn’t a dead end. It would provide a chance to correct past mistakes and regain public trust. Whether they succeed remains uncertain, but there’s no doubt that Pezeshkian and his team will strive to win power. This battle promises to be historic.

June 30, 2024 at 10:10PM

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