TEHRAN—Iranians headed to the polls to choose a new president in a process heavily skewed in favor of hard-liners, as the country faces regional tensions and negotiations to revive the 2015 nuclear deal and free itself from crushing U.S. sanctions.
Millions of Iranians planned to boycott the vote after the country’s election supervisory body disqualified nearly all nonconservative candidates. On the ballot are four choices, including an ultraconservative cleric hostile to the U.S. and Western powers, who emerged as the front-runner after the mass disqualification of candidates.
On election day, state media sought to portray the turnout as high, broadcasting from polling stations where correspondents said they were surprised to see long lines forming. But half a dozen polling stations in south Tehran, usually a stronghold for the establishment in the capital, remained half empty into the early afternoon, indicating a lower turnout than previous years. The interior ministry said it would extend voting if necessary because of purported technical errors in some polling stations.
called on Iranians to vote to strengthen the system when he cast his ballot early on Friday. “Every single vote counts,” Mr. Khamenei said in televised remarks. “Today belongs to the people. Showing up at the ballot box and casting your vote helps build the future.”
Ahead of the vote, Mr. Khamenei blamed a predicted low turnout on foreign media.
The vetting process narrowed the choice for moderates and reformists and exacerbated a feeling among many Iranians of being sidelined by Iran’s authoritarian, clerical establishment. The election is now essentially a two-person contest between conservative
The election takes place as Iran and the U.S. are negotiating terms to revive the 2015 multilateral nuclear deal, which the Trump administration exited in 2018 before reimposing harsh economic sanctions. Since April, Iranian, American, European, Russian and Chinese negotiators have met in Vienna to agree on a way for the U.S. to return to the nuclear agreement and lift sanctions on Iran, and to roll back Iran’s recent breaches of key limitations on its nuclear enrichment activities, stipulated in the accord.
Iran’s foreign policy, in particular its relationship with Washington, is determined by the supreme leader. But the country’s president can set the direction of Iran’s foreign-policy priorities and influence the supreme leader, as President
did when he convinced Mr. Khamenei to support negotiations that led to the 2015 accord.
Mr. Raisi, the front-runner, is the country’s chief justice and is close to Mr. Khamenei, whose suspicion of the U.S. and Western powers he shares. He has come out in support of the nuclear deal, echoing the supreme leader’s stance.
As Mr. Khamenei supports reviving the deal, a change in presidency is unlikely to dramatically affect Tehran’s position in the talks, particularly as any economic benefit from a lifting of U.S. sanctions would boost Mr. Raisi early in his term.
Mr. Hemmati also has said he would invite Foreign Minister
to join his cabinet, either in the same role or as vice president, a sign that he intends to continue the current administration’s focus on improving Iran’s foreign relations and support for nuclear diplomacy.
In recent weeks, the delegations in Vienna have made a final push to get as close as possible to an agreement before the Iranian elections to ensure that the transition to a new administration in Tehran causes as little delay and uncertainty as possible. Some European diplomats hope to wrap up negotiations by early July, before a new president takes office.
The revival of the nuclear deal wasn’t a central election issue in debates and campaigning leading up to the election. A new president would have to follow the directions of the supreme leader, and candidates across the political spectrum agree that staying in the accord to ensure a lifting of U.S. sanctions is in Iran’s interest. For many, the deterioration of the economy was the primary concern.
Mahmoud Ebrahimi Saniabadi, 33, said he had come out to vote because he followed the supreme leader’s guidance, and that voting ensured that Iran remained not only Islamic but also a republic. He had cast his ballot for Mr. Raisi, he said, because he trusted him to improve Iranians’ livelihoods. “Standing in line for chicken or oil is beneath Iranians,” Mr. Saniabadi said.
On Friday, Mr. Raisi sought to address some of those concerns. “People are right to be upset because of some shortages and problems,” he said. “But they shouldn’t be upset with the ballot box,” Mr. Raisi told reporters Friday morning after casting his ballot at the Ershad mosque in Shahr-e Rey, a southern suburb of Tehran.
Addressing many Iranians’ concerns that he would serve the country’s hard-liners, Mr. Raisi added, “I will be at the service of all people, not a particular camp or group, or a particular city.”
The 60-year-old Mr. Raisi has little political experience but is known as a hard-liner who during a long career in the judicial system has presided over oppression of political dissent and the mass arrest of opposition activists.
In Mr. Raisi’s stronghold, the conservative eastern city of Mashhad, banners and posters sought to rally voters by invoking
Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani,
the highly popular top military commander killed in a U.S. drone strike in Iraq last year. One poster on the city’s metro featured a photo of Gen. Soleimani and compared the voting booth to the battlefield: “Don’t leave the field empty,” it said.
Mr. Raisi’s main challenger, Mr. Hemmati, is a former central bank chief who has cast himself as a reform-friendly moderate backing more social and political freedoms for Iranians. He also has limited political experience but the 64-year-old is closely associated with the outgoing administration of Mr. Rouhani, a moderate who has now hit his two-term limit.
The main hurdle for Mr. Hemmati, a technocrat with no constituency of note, is to persuade people to come out and vote. A high turnout has traditionally benefited reformists and moderates, as their voters are more likely to boycott elections in protest against how the country is run.
In the latest poll by the Iranian Students Polling Agency before Election Day, 44% of Iranians planned to vote—a historic low and far below the 73% who voted in 2017—of whom 64% said they would cast their ballot for Mr. Raisi. Mr. Hemmati polled at roughly 4%.
Both face immediate challenges on the domestic and international fronts.
The new president and his government would need to take steps to boost the economy while keeping a check on the Covid-19 pandemic. Growth has stuttered in recent years, constrained by U.S. sanctions, while unemployment is high and the local currency has plummeted in value. The economic crisis has pushed more families into poverty. It has driven Iranians to protest in the streets, where they have been met with brutal force by security forces.
He would also have to contend with more tensions in the region. Iran has accused Israel of conducting attacks on its nuclear facilities and the killing of a top nuclear scientist last year. Israel, which opposes the nuclear accord, has refused to comment on the allegations.
Sogol, a 36-year-old homemaker and mother of four who voted for Mr. Raisi, said she trusted the cleric because of his management of the large Astan Quds Razavi foundation in Mashhad, and his prosecution of allegedly corrupt officials, including the brother of Mr. Rouhani.
“When he says he will do something, he will do it,” she said. “His ethics will become a model for society.”
Friday’s vote represents the narrowest spectrum of political participation since the Islamic Republic was founded four decades ago. The strict vetting process was an apparent effort to maintain as much control as possible over the outcome, even if it pushes swaths of the population to disengage from an electoral process that the establishment in the past has touted as evidence of its popularity.
Iran’s political factions are roughly divided into two main camps: right-wing hard-liners and liberal reformists, with moderate pragmatists, such as the current president, Mr. Rouhani, staking out the middle ground.
The winnowing down of the electoral spectrum also highlights how Iran’s clerical establishment is growing out of touch not only with reform-minded, younger Iranians but also swaths of its own stalwarts.
Mr. Rouhani’s initial path to power back in 2013 should give Mr. Hemmati reason for optimism. One week before the election that year, Mr. Rouhani was also polling in single digits. He later won a landslide victory with over 50% of the vote by appealing to the middle ground.
Write to Sune Engel Rasmussen at email@example.com
Copyright ©2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8