Iran holds runoff presidential vote pitting hard-liner against reformist after record low turnout

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Iran was holding a runoff presidential election Friday pitting a hard-line former nuclear negotiator against a reformist lawmaker, though both men earlier struggled to convince a skeptical public to cast ballots in the first round that saw the lowest turnout in the Islamic Republic’s history.

Government officials up to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei predicted a higher participation rate as voting took place, with state television airing images of modest lines at some polling centers across the country. However, online videos purported to show some polls empty while a survey of several dozen sites in the capital, Tehran, saw light traffic amid a heavy security presence on the streets.

Khamenei has insisted the low turnout from the first round on June 28 didn’t represent a referendum on Iran’s Shiite theocracy. However, many remain disillusioned as Iran has been beset by years under crushing economic sanctions, bloody security force crackdowns on mass protests and tensions with the West over Tehran’s advancing nuclear program enriching uranium closer than ever to weapons-grade levels.

“I want to save the country from isolation we are stuck in, and from lies and the violence against women because Iranian women don’t deserve to be beaten up and insulted on the street by extremists who want to destroy the country by cutting ties with big countries,” voter Ghazaal Bakhtiari said. “We should have ties with America and powerful nations.”

The race pits former negotiator Saeed Jalili against reformist Masoud Pezeshkian. Jalili has had a recalcitrant reputation among Western diplomats during negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, something that is paired with concern at home over his hard-line views on Iran’s mandatory headscarf, or hijab. Pezeshkian, a heart surgeon, has campaigned on relaxing hijab enforcement and reaching out to the West, though he too for decades has supported Khamenei and Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard.

Pezeshkian’s supporters have been warning Jalili will bring a “Taliban”-style government into Tehran, while Jalili has criticized Pezeshkian for running a campaign of fear-mongering.

Both contenders voted Friday in southern Tehran, home to many poor neighborhoods. Though Pezeshzkian came out on top in the first round of voting on June 28, Jalili has been trying to secure the votes of people who supported hard-line parliamentary speaker Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, who came in third and later endorsed the former negotiator.

Pezeshzkian offered no comments after voting, walking out with former Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who reached Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers. A rambunctious crowd surrounded the men, shouting: “The nation’s hope comes!”

Jalili voted at another poll, surrounded by a crowd shouting: “Raisi, your way continues!” Both men hope to replace the 63-year-old late President Ebrahim Raisi died in a May 19 helicopter crash that also killed the country’s foreign minister and others.

“Today the entire world admits that it’s the people who decide who’s president for the next four years,” Jalili said afterward. “This is your right to decide which person, which path and which approach should rule the country in the next four years.”

But as has been the case since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, women and those calling for radical change have been barred from the ballot while the vote itself will have no oversight from internationally recognized monitors. The country’s Interior Ministry, in charge of police, oversees the result.

There have been calls for a boycott, including from imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize laureate Narges Mohammadi, though potential voters in Iran appear to have made the decision not to participate last week on their own as there’s no widely accepted opposition movement operating within or outside of the country.

Khamenei cast one of the election’s first votes Friday from his residence, TV cameras and photographers capturing him dropping the ballot into the box. He insisted those who didn’t vote last week weren’t boycotting the government.

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

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.”

The vote comes as wider tensions have gripped the Middle East over the Israel-Hamas war in the Gaza Strip. In April, Iran launched its first-ever direct attack on Israel over the war in Gaza, while militia groups that Tehran arms in the region — such as the Lebanese Hezbollah and Yemen’s Houthi rebels — are engaged in the fighting and have escalated their attacks.

Iran also continues to enrich uranium at near weapons-grade levels and maintains a stockpile large enough to build several nuclear weapons, should it choose to do so. And while Khamenei remains the final decision-maker on matters of state, whichever man ends up winning the presidency could bend the country’s foreign policy toward either confrontation or collaboration with the West.

More than 61 million Iranians 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, but traditionally get extended until midnight to boost participation. Authorities have issued one extension already.

The election comes after the 63-year-old late President Ebrahim Raisi died in a May 19 helicopter crash that also killed the country’s foreign minister and others. He was seen as a protege of Khamenei and a potential successor as supreme leader. Still, many knew him for his involvement in the mass executions that Iran conducted in 1988, and for his role in the bloody crackdowns on dissent that followed protests over the 2022 death of Mahsa Amini, a young woman detained by police over allegedly improperly wearing the mandatory headscarf, or hijab.


Nasser Karimi reported from Tehran, Iran.

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