Iran’s Presidential Runoff Features Hard-liner and Reformist Candidate

Iranian citizens participated in a runoff presidential election on Friday, choosing between a conservative former nuclear negotiator and a reformist lawmaker. Both candidates sought to persuade a skeptical public to vote after years of economic challenges and widespread protests in the Islamic Republic.

The contest between and Masoud Pezeshkian, a heart surgeon and long-serving parliamentarian, followed a first round with record-low voter turnout, raising concerns about participation in the runoff.

Meanwhile, heightened tensions gripped the Middle East due to the Israel-Hamas conflict in the Gaza Strip. In April, Iran launched its first direct attack on Israel in response to the Gaza war, while Tehran-backed militias, including Lebanese Hezbollah and Yemen’s Houthi rebels, are engaged in the fighting and have intensified their attacks.

Iran continues to enrich uranium close to weapons-grade levels and maintains a stockpile sufficient for building multiple nuclear weapons, should it decide to do so. Although Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei remains the ultimate authority on state matters, the outcome of the presidential election could influence the country’s foreign policy, potentially leading to either confrontation or cooperation with the West.

A heavy security presence was visible on Tehran’s streets on Friday, while voter turnout appeared low at numerous polling stations. State television broadcast scenes of modest queues at voting centers across the country.

Both Jalili and Pezeshkian voted in southern Tehran, an area with many impoverished neighborhoods, in . Despite Pezeshzkian’s victory in the first round of voting on June 28, Jalili has been campaigning to secure votes from supporters of hard-line parliament speaker Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, who placed third and subsequently endorsed the former negotiator.

One voter, 27-year-old Yaghoub Mohammadi, said he voted for Jalili in both rounds.

“He is clean, without depending on powerful people in the establishment,” Mohammadi said. “He represents those who have no access to power.”

Voter Samira Sharafi, a 34-year-old mother of a toddler, stated that she voted for the reformist Pezeshkian, despite supporting Qalibaf in the first round. She described Pezeshkian as “more experienced” than Jalili.

Calls for a boycott emerged, including from imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize laureate Narges Mohammadi. However, potential voters in Iran seemingly made the decision to abstain last week without a widely recognized opposition movement operating within or outside the country.

State television broadcasted images of modest lines at selected polling places across the country as voting commenced on Friday.

As has been customary since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, women and those advocating for radical change have been excluded from the ballot, and the vote itself is conducted without oversight from internationally recognized observers.

Interior Minister Ahmad Vahidi, responsible for overseeing the election, announced that all polling stations opened at 8 a.m. local time.

Khamenei cast one of the election’s initial votes from his residence, with television cameras and photographers capturing him dropping the ballot into the box.

“I have heard that people’s enthusiasm is more than before,” Khamenei said. “God willing, people vote and choose the best” candidate.

However, Khamenei remarked on Wednesday that those who abstained from voting last week were not opposed to the country’s Shiite theocracy.

“There are reasons behind this matter which should be examined by sociologists and those involved in politics,” he said.

over the age of 18 are eligible to vote, with about 18 million of them between 18 to 30. Elections are scheduled to end at 6 p.m. local time but traditionally extend until midnight to encourage participation.

Friday’s election marks only Iran’s second presidential runoff since 1979. The first took place in 2005, when hard-liner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad defeated former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Under Ahmadinejad, Iran faced international sanctions due to its advancing nuclear program, as well as the 2009 Green Movement protests and the subsequent crackdown that suppressed them.

Pezeshkian’s supporters have warned that Jalili would establish a “Taliban”-style government in Tehran, while Jalili has criticized Pezeshkian’s campaign as fear-mongering.

The election follows the death of the 63-year-old late President Ebrahim Raisi in a helicopter crash on May 19, which also claimed the lives of the country’s foreign minister and others. Raisi was considered a protégé of Khamenei and a potential successor as supreme leader. However, many were aware of his involvement in the mass executions carried out by Iran in 1988 and his role in the violent crackdowns on dissent that followed protests sparked by the 2022 death of Mahsa Amini, a young woman detained by police for allegedly violating the mandatory headscarf, or hijab, regulations.