Iranians Vote: A Chance to Break from the Khomeinist Core?
Renzo Guolo 3 July 2024

In the Iranian presidential elections, the moderate reformist Masoud Pezeshkian and the hard-line conservative Saeed Jalili are heading to a runoff. This is the result of the first round of elections held to designate Ebrahim Raisi’s successor, who died in a plane crash in May. The elections require a candidate to secure 50 percent of the votes to be elected in the first round. Despite exhortations from Supreme Leader Khamenei, the election was marked by high abstention rates: only 40 percent of voters went to the polls, the lowest turnout recorded in the over forty-year electoral history of the Islamic Republic. Additionally, one million invalid ballots were cast, indicating clear dissent and delegitimization of the “system.”

Despite the withdrawal of two minor conservative candidates in the final days of the election campaign, the presence of multiple candidates on the conservative front – aimed at avoiding surprises – has temporarily favored Pezeshkian. He received 10.4 million votes, compared to Jalili’s 9.4 million and the 3.3 million votes for the president of Parliament, Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf. Mostafa Pourmohammadi, on the other hand, garnered only 206,000 votes.

The result indicates that some reformist voters chose to go to the polls despite contrary advice from leaders like Mousavi, casting their votes for Pezeshkian, a former Minister of Health under Mohammad Khatami’s government. This move, typical in that political area, was driven by the logic of choosing the “lesser evil.” Pezeshkian has firmly reaffirmed his loyalty to the “system” its power structure, and the principles of the Islamic Republic—though, had he not, the Guardian Council would have excluded him from the race. He has proposed a less ideological policy regarding international relations and the mandatory wearing of the veil. While reaffirming the principle, he suggests shifting authority from the religious police back to the regular judiciary, reducing the significant control of the Gasht-e-Ershad. Pezeshkian’s stance on the issue that triggered the great uprising of 2022 can be summarized by the formula: “With me, no Mahsa Amini cases, only a policy of persuasion.”

These positions, in any case, were not enough to mobilize segments of the Iranian population – young people, women, and educated urban classes – who, after many attempts to “rectify” the system since the Khatami era, no longer believe that a less conservative president can change things. The core of power remains in the hands of the Supreme Leader and has, for several years now, been co-managed with the Pasdaran, the regime’s armed militia, which has taken on an increasingly significant role in the institutional and political framework of the Islamic Republic. Additionally, the remaining reformist factions failed to bring supporters of the leaderless and thus less effective “Women, Life, Freedom” movement to the polls, as they reject any “entryist” approach to institutions they consider irreformable.

The clear loser of the first round is undoubtedly the current president of the Majles, Qalibaf. His political background places him close to the Pasdaran, but the former mayor of Tehran is no longer organically connected to that military world, which now has its own projects and personnel. Today’s Pasdaran are not the same as those from the Iran-Iraq war, when the Revolutionary Guards sacrificed themselves in the “martyrdom” of major trench battles to stop Saddam Hussein‘s forces, which were then supported by the United States in an anti-Iranian function. As seen in the case of former President Ahmadinejad, a leader of the radical right who was notably excluded from this competition by the Guardian Council’s veto, having been part of the revolutionary army is not enough to claim primacy in power management.

Today, the influential figures among the Sepah-e Pasdaran-e Enghelab-e Eslami are the second-generation cadres who, if not post-ideological, are certainly more inclined towards a military nationalism with a grand Persian perspective rather than Islamic Revolution in a Shiite context. If it comes to a “Khomeinism without clergy” that the Pasdaran might impose in the event of a system crisis due to the collapse of the conservative clergy’s legitimacy, they would do so openly, no longer hiding behind historically close personalities, and with slogans less focused on religious discourse.

The fact that Qalibaf did not make it to the runoff indicates that, for now, the compromise between the clergy and military still hinges on Khamenei’s firm hold on power, the last prominent figure of the original Khomeinist core. When the succession of the Supreme Leader arises, the dynamics and roles could be different.

In the runoff, the conservatives will rally behind Jalili – himself a veteran and “martyr” who lost a limb in the Iran-Iraq war – counting on gaining the votes of the other two candidates who were forced to withdraw, especially those previously given to Qalibaf. By allowing Pezeshkian to proceed, the Guardian Council was carrying out the Supreme Leader’s wishes and satisfying those within the regime who believed that including a reformist in the competition would, if not re-legitimize, at least not further strain the “system.”

This gamble of maintaining an “institutional façade” could be lost if not only voters from the reformist camp but also sympathizers of the rebellion that has marked the country in the last two years turn out massively in the second round. This prospect is challenging because the former favors the “lesser evil” approach while the latter find that option futile, convinced that only the regime’s collapse can end the current state of affairs.

These are two opposing worlds within the opposition to conservatives that no longer communicate, with the risk, at least in the short term, of solidifying the hostile camp. Throughout history, the power of the conservative clergy has strengthened when there is unity in the direction of bodies granting religious legitimacy (Supreme Leader, Guardian Council, Assembly of Experts) and political legitimacy (President, Parliament). If Jalili wins on July 5, that balance, disrupted by Raisi’s sudden death, will be restored once again.

A victory that would have significant repercussions externally: Jalili was a staunch nuclear negotiator under Ahmadinejad and a determined opponent of the 2015 agreement that eased tensions between the US and Iran during the Obama administration. If Trump returns to the White House in November, it is difficult to envision renewed negotiations. In any case, Tehran would also be influenced by Jalili’s likely rejection.



This article is courtesy of the Istituto della Enciclopedia Treccani and was originally published in Italian on July 1, 2024. Any reproduction and/or use that is not strictly personal is prohibited. Retransmission over the Internet or posting in any form is strictly prohibited.

Cover photo: An Iranian newspaper featuring portraits of 2024 early presidential elections candidates, Masoud Pezeshkian (L) and Saeed Jalili, is being placed at a news stand during Iran’s early election campaign rallies in downtown Tehran, Iran, on July 2, 2024. Photo by Morteza Nikoubazl / NurPhoto / NurPhoto via AFP.

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