Iran Picks New President At Turbulent Time

Iranians will vote for a new president on Friday, with six candidates running, including a lone reformist who aims to challenge conservatives’ dominance in the Islamic republic.

A presidential election was not scheduled until 2025, but was pushed earlier after ultraconservative Ebrahim Raisi died in a helicopter crash last month.

The snap poll comes at a difficult moment for Iran, which is dealing with the economic consequences of international sanctions as well as heightened regional tensions over Israel’s war with Tehran’s partner Hamas in Gaza.

Iran fired more than 300 missiles and drones against Israel in April, following an air strike near Damascus that killed seven Revolutionary Guards members.

According to reports, Israel launched a retaliation strike near Isfahan.

Polling is also taking place just five months before the presidential election in the United States, Iran’s sworn adversary and Israel’s ardent friend.

Conservative parliament speaker Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, ultraconservative former nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili, and the single reformist, Massoud Pezeshkian, are the top contenders for Iran’s second highest post.

The other candidates include conservative Tehran Mayor Alireza Zakani, cleric Mostafa Pourmohammadi, and incumbent Vice President Amirhossein Ghazizadeh-Hashemi, the ultraconservative chairman of the Martyrs’ Foundation.

The six have run mainly low-key campaigns, including televised debates in which they pledged to address economic issues and expressed differing views on Iran’s relations with the West.

According to Ali Vaez of the International Crisis Group, the new president would also have to address the issue of the deepening “fissure between the state and society”.

“Nobody has presented a concrete plan of how they are going to deal with a lot of these issues,” he said.

‘No way I’m voting’

Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who wields the ultimate authority in Iran, urged “high participation” on Friday.

In the 2021 election that brought Raisi to power, voters shunned the polls after many reformists and moderates were disqualified.

The turnout then was just under 49 percent — the lowest in any presidential election in Iran.

People appear divided over whether voting will mean any key concerns being addressed.

These include the mounting effects of soaring inflation and the decline of the rial against the dollar.

“There’s no way I’m voting,” said Neda, an engineer who gave only her first name, in northern Tehran.

“No matter who takes the post, none of them is sympathetic with the nation. My vote won’t affect anything,” she told AFP.

In contrast, Jaleh, a 60-year-old housewife, said she supported reformist Pezeshkian, who is “from the people” and could handle unemployment and poverty.

Former President Mohammad Khatami and former Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif have endorsed Pezeshkian.

However, some Iranians believe the 69-year-old reformist lacks government experience, having only served as health minister approximately 20 years ago.

Ghalibaf, one of the primary contenders, is a seasoned politician and former member of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which ideologically supported the republic following the 1979 revolution.

Dress code concerns 

Jalili, an ultraconservative former nuclear negotiator known for his rigid stance toward the West, appears to be gaining hardline backing.

Alireza Valadkhani, a 35-year-old tax specialist, told AFP that he will vote for Ghalibaf because he “is the only one who can help Iran in its current situation”.

Voters are concerned that a new president could mean a potential modification to the disputed hijab law for women, especially in light of the enormous protests sparked by Mahsa Amini’s death in detention in 2022.

Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian Kurd, was jailed for allegedly violating Iran’s dress code, which requires women to cover their heads and necks and dress modestly in public.

Since the uprisings, women have increasingly broken the code. In recent months, police have increased penalties for breaking the laws.

The majority of the contenders have been careful during the televised debates, stating that they generally condemn the use of violence against people who do not wear the mandated headscarf.

“For 40 years, we have sought to fix the hijab, but we made the situation worse,” Pezeshkian said in campaigning.

For many women, the idea of a change to the hijab laws seems far-fetched.

“It is hard for the candidates to fulfil their promises” on this, said 31-year-old Maryam, who also gave only her first name.

Neda said: “The hijab law will never be lifted since this is the Islamic republic.

“I don’t think any president would be willing to change this law.”

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