The least conservative candidate wins the first round of the elections in Iran: an “accident”?

Pezeshkian, a 70-year-old cardiac surgeon and former health minister, received 42.5 percent of the vote. The conservative Jalili obtained less than 39 percent. Official turnout was 40 percent lower than ever in Iran’s elections. In the capital, Tehran, only 23 percent of voters turned out.

The result means that there will be a run-off on Friday, July 5. If Pezeshkian wins the most votes again (and that possibility seems considerable), Iran will have a president who will receive the support of the reformist camp.

About the Author
Rob Vreeken is Istanbul correspondent for of Volkskrant. He writes about Türkiye, Iran, Israel and the Palestinian territories. She previously specialized in foreign affairs in human rights and the Middle East.

During the campaign, Pezeshkian strongly opposed the harsh actions of people like former president Ebrahim Raisi. His death in a helicopter crash last month made Friday’s election necessary.

Raisi was a kindred spirit and a staunch enforcer of the policies of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Jalili would be Raisi’s natural successor from an ideological point of view. He gets along very well with Khamenei, more so than with another conservative presidential candidate, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf. He received more than 13 percent of the vote.

Fight for power

If Pezeshkian does indeed become president, he must find a way to engage with Khamenei. In the political system of the Islamic Republic, the Supreme Leader determines the broad lines of policy and sometimes the small ones as well. Rather, the president is a kind of prime minister, an official who is expected to implement the policies set by the Supreme Leader. The president has little room for maneuver, especially internationally.

Iranian women on the street in Tehran, behind them hangs a poster of presidential candidate Pezeshkian.Image AFP

There was a power struggle under the previous reformist presidents, Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005) and Hassan Rouhani (2013-2021). The ambitious populist Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005-2013) also periodically clashed with Khamenei and his advisers behind the scenes. In the end, all presidents kept banging their heads against the wall. The Supreme Leader and his court are in charge in Iran.

The difference with Khatami and Rouhani is that Pezeshkian has expressly stated in advance that he accepts the authority of the Supreme Leader. He will operate “within the framework” set by Khamenei. This was possibly partly rhetoric, aimed first of all at being admitted into the battle for the presidency. Once in office, he will probably try to fight for his own political space.

Guardian Council

In Iran, the Guardian Council determines which candidates can participate in elections. The council, made up of lawyers and clerics, is the highest body within the constitution of the Islamic Republic. They test all laws against Islam and the constitution. Khamenei appoints six of the council’s twelve members and indirectly appoints the other six.

Of the 86 people who registered as presidential candidates, only six made it through the Guardian Council vote. Outspoken reformers were rejected, as were four women. Former President Ahmadinejad also made an unsuccessful attempt to run again.

Pezeshkian was the only moderate among the admitted candidates, along with five conservatives and hardliners, two of whom withdrew last week. He soon received support from people in the reformist camp. Former President Khatami also expressed support for him. Javad Zarif, foreign minister in the Rouhani government, actively campaigned for Pezeshkian. However, his chances increased in a short time.

Pezeshkian as an industrial accident

The question is whether the regime had foreseen this. Pezeshkian may have passed the vote because the impression had to be created, also to the outside world, that the Iranian people really had a choice and that Iran is indeed a democracy. Many observers suspected that Khamenei and his entourage had Jalili or Ghalibaf in mind as the new president. In that scenario, a Pezeshkian victory would be a kind of industrial accident, the result of a miscalculation.

However, it is also possible that a Pezeshkian presidency definitely suits Khamenei. He could reduce social pressure. There is great discontent in society: due to economic unrest, international isolation and lack of freedom, especially for women.

In the fall of 2022, the Islamic Republic experienced one of the biggest crises of its 45-year existence, when the authorities cracked down on protests following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini. The young woman had been assaulted after being arrested for not respecting the dress code. The slogan of the movement was “Women, Life, Freedom.”


The crackdown on protests has further increased lethargy among voters. Many Iranians see no reason to vote for a regime that brutally attacks young people peacefully demonstrating for more freedom. At least 551 people died as a result of police action, including 68 children. Hundreds of people lost sight in one or both eyes. Seven protesters were sentenced to death and thousands were sentenced to prison.

“I have considered voting for Pezeshkian,” Roya, a 74-year-old retired teacher, told reporters earlier this week. by Volkskrant. ‘He has some good plans and as a person he has integrity. But on Tuesday morning I decided not to vote. When I woke up, I again had images of the children who had been shot and wounded. I cried and screamed. If I voted, the government would make a good impression. I can’t do that to the parents of those children.’

For example, the majority of voters in Iran decided to stay home on Friday, out of disinterest, protest or a combination of both. Calls for a boycott had been made on social media: the lower the turnout, the more disorderly the regime would be. Renowned artists and dissidents, such as Nobel laureate Narges Mohammadi, supported the call.

Some of the reformers who once believed in the possibility of change within the political system have lost all hope. They only believe in “regime change” through a popular uprising. For example, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, Iran’s prime minister in the 1980s and the reformists’ presidential candidate in 2009, said he supported the boycott. Mousavi has been under house arrest for thirteen years.

Empty polling stations

Other Iranians with a changing mentality, on the other hand, gave a chance on Friday to the least conservative of the candidates – Pezeshkian – for God’s sake. All this was not enough to please the regime with full electoral colleges.

In the 2021 presidential election, turnout was still 48 percent. Even then, that was seen as an embarrassment. That is why this time the authorities wanted to increase turnout. A good voter turnout would confirm the legitimacy of the regime. Just on Tuesday, Supreme Leader Khamenei said in a speech that a high turnout would “silence the enemies of the Islamic Republic.”

So that didn’t work. Even in the parliamentary elections in March this year, which did not arouse any enthusiasm among the population due to the lack of real options, the official turnout was higher: 41 percent. In Tehran, voter enthusiasm reached an all-time low: 23 percent went to vote there. This corresponds to the impression that by Volkskrant This week there were conversations in the streets of the Iranian capital. The vast majority of residents interviewed indicated they would stay home on Election Day.

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