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Iran holds presidential election amid crisis

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Iran will hold an election on Friday to choose its president after a fierce campaign in which nearly all candidates were fiercely critical of the government over the economy, internet restrictions and harsh enforcement of women’s headscarf laws.

The vote comes at a dangerous time for Iran, as the new president faces a host of challenges, including domestic discontent and division, a weak economy and a volatile region that has pushed Iran to the brink of war twice this year.

The race eventually became a three-way contest between two conservative candidates and a reformist candidate, with many analysts predicting that none of the three candidates would receive the required 50% of the vote, necessitating a runoff on July 5 between the reformist candidate and the leading conservative candidate.

That outcome might have been avoided if a leading conservative candidate had dropped out of the race, but in a bitter public battle, neither General Mohammad Bakr Ghalibaf, a pragmatic technocrat and former IRGC commander, nor hard-line Saeed Jalili backed down.

Polls across the country opened at 8 a.m. local time Friday, and voting usually ends late into the night. But Iran’s elections are tightly controlled, with a committee of appointed clerics and jurists vetting all candidates and opposition voices in the news media intimidated. As a result, many Iranians are not expected to vote, either in protest or because they don’t believe the ballot box can bring about meaningful change.

Four young women studying psychology at Tehran University felt the discontent as they bought cosmetics at the Tajrish bazaar in northern Iran on Wednesday. They said that despite their dissatisfaction with the current state of Iran, they did not plan to vote.

“We can’t do anything about it; we don’t have any hope except for ourselves,” said Sogand, 19, who asked not to be identified further out of fear of the authorities. “But we want to stay in Iran so that our children can have a better life.”

She wore tailored black pants and a fitted jacket, leaving her brown hair uncovered. But she also had a scarf draped over her shoulders in case officials asked her to put it on. As for the rule requiring women to wear headscarves, she added simply: “We hate it.”

To counter those attitudes, top Iranian officials, from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to senior Revolutionary Guard commanders, framed the vote as an act of defiance against Iran’s enemies and an endorsement of the Islamic Republic’s rule.

“High turnout is a very sensitive issue for us,” General Hossein Salami, the chief of the Revolutionary Guards, said in a speech this week. “It strengthens Iran’s power in the world.”

The government expects turnout to be around 50 percent, higher than recent presidential and parliamentary elections but far lower than previous presidential elections, when more than 70 percent of voters participated.

Since Khamenei is responsible for making all major national decisions in Iran, especially foreign and nuclear policies, for voters, which candidate to choose depends more on the overall political atmosphere in the country than on any specific candidate.

With two of the original six candidates dropping out, voters will choose between Jalili, who has a hardline approach to domestic and foreign policy; Ghalibaf, the speaker of parliament; reformist candidate Masoud Pezeshkian, a cardiologist and former health minister whose candidacy is uncertain; and Mustafa Pourmohammadi, a conservative cleric who once held a senior position in the intelligence service and who polls show is likely to get less than 1% of the vote.

The final days of the campaign exposed tensions between the two main conservative candidates, Ghalibaf and Jalili, as they argued over who should drop out to consolidate the conservative vote and hopefully avoid a runoff.

But those signs were not apparent Wednesday as he waved to a crowd of supporters holding Iranian flags and chanting his name at a rally at a stadium in Ghalibaf’s hometown of Mashhad, video of the event showed. “A strong Iran needs a strong president; a strong Iran needs a president who works tirelessly,” said a cleric who introduced him.

But the situation was not as good for Jalili, who spoke at a rally in the same city that evening. The Quds Force chief, Gen. Ismail Ghani, flew to Mashhad late Wednesday after previous talks to consolidate the vote failed, forcing the two to hold an emergency meeting, according to Iranian news reports and two officials familiar with the details of the meeting, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to speak publicly about it.

General Ghani said he wanted Mr. Jalili to withdraw his troops because of rising tensions in the region, the Gaza war and a possible imminent conflict between Hezbollah and Israel that could draw Iran in. Given those concerns, he said Mr. Ghalibaf, with his military background and pragmatic stance, was best suited to lead the government, according to people familiar with the matter.

In the dramatic, public spat, campaign officials attacked each other on social media, but neither man backed down.

The latest poll released by Iranian state television on Wednesday, the last day of campaigning, showed Pezeshkian leading with 23.5 percent, Ghalibaf at 16.9 percent, Jalili at 16.3 percent, 28.5 percent undecided and the rest divided among candidates, including those who dropped out of the race.

Analysts said the candidates were unexpectedly forthright in criticizing the status quo during the televised debate, suggesting that an economy plagued by U.S. sanctions as well as corruption and mismanagement has become top of mind for voters and candidates.

They say economic issues cannot be resolved without addressing foreign policy issues, including the standoff with the United States over its nuclear program and concerns about Iranian military activities in the region through its network of militant proxy groups.

“Rather than radical change, the elections may bring about smaller but significant changes,” said Vali Nasr, professor of international affairs and Middle East studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington. “Voices among those in power who want a change of direction may push the Islamic Republic to abandon some of its positions.”

Nasr noted that under centrist President Hassan Rouhani, Iran negotiated with world powers that culminated in the landmark 2015 nuclear deal. But President Donald J. Trump withdrew from the accord in 2018 and reimposed tough sanctions on Iran, including targeting its oil revenues and international bank transfers.

While apathy remains high in most urban areas, voters in provinces with large Azerbaijani Turkish and Kurdish populations are expected to cast more votes for Dr. Pezeshkian, himself an Azerbaijani Turk who served as a councillor in the city of Tabriz, a major economic center in the northwestern province of East Azerbaijan. Dr. Pezeshkian has given campaign speeches in both his native Turkish and Kurdish.

At a rally in Tabriz on Wednesday, the doctor was welcomed like a folk hero, with crowds filling a stadium and singing Turkish nationalist songs, according to videos and news reports.Azerbaijani activists say ethnic and religious minorities are rare in senior Iranian posts, so a candidate running for president has sparked interest and enthusiasm in the region.

“People want Azerbaijan to return to the highest decision-making levels of the country,” said Yashar Hakakpour, an Iranian-Azerbaijani human rights activist living in exile in Canada. “We estimate that many Azerbaijanis will vote for him.”

Mr. Hakkakpour said that while he and many other activists will not vote and do not believe Iran’s elections are free or fair, he said those who voted for Dr. Pezeshkian hope for small improvements in their lives and their regions, such as more investment; a reversal of the drying up of Lake Urmia, once a major body of water; and, most importantly, a greater sense of inclusion.

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