What the Mood Is Like in Iran Ahead of Presidential Elections

The campaign billboards adorning the streets of Iran for the coming presidential election make grand promises: economic prosperity, an end to corruption, a free press, the reversal of a brain drain and a pledge from one candidate to “save the citizens” from all the woes afflicting the country.

In their efforts to attract votes, all six candidates — five conservatives and one reformist, all selected by a committee of clerics — are unleashing blistering attacks on the status quo. In speeches, televised debates and round-table discussions, they have criticized the government’s economic, domestic and foreign policies, as well as the violent treatment of women by the morality police, and have ridiculed rosy official assessments of Iran’s economic prospects as harmful delusions.

Iran is holding a special presidential election on June 28 to choose a successor to President Ebrahim Raisi, a hard-line conservative who was killed last month in a helicopter crash. While the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has final say on all major policy decisions in Iran, the presidency sets the domestic agenda and, to a lesser extent, can influence foreign policy.

Elections in Iran are not free and fair by Western standards, and the selection of candidates is tightly vetted by the Guardian Council, an appointed committee of 12 clerics. Some elections have been competitive, however, and the results can be unpredictable. The council approved the current candidates from a list of 80, seven of them women, and among them a former president and several government ministers and lawmakers, who were all disqualified.

In past political campaigns, conservatives and reformists both have attacked their rivals, but conservatives have typically remained within strict ideological boundaries that precluded attacks on the system.

While the harsh critiques of this campaign might be expected from the reform candidate, to have them coming from the conservatives has astonished some Iranians. And that may be the point, analysts say.

Voter turnout is an important marker for the government, a measure of its support and legitimacy, and it has been lagging amid boycotts and voter apathy. To an extent, the debates reflect the real divisions within the political ranks and an overall frustration, even among officials, with the country’s problems.

The presence of a reform candidate, Dr. Masoud Pezeshkian, is, in itself, something of a surprise, as the council has barred most reformists from running in recent parliamentary and presidential races. Yet, this, too, may be a government ploy to lift turnout, one Iran expert said.

Dr. Pezeshkian, a heart surgeon, former health minister and longtime member of Parliament, was a “token candidate trying to create debate and mobilize people’s vote,” said Sanam Vakil, the director of the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House in London. “They probably calculated that for internal optics and legitimacy, putting on what looks like a more dynamic election would be beneficial.”

Still, Ms. Vakil said that election season in Iran showcased a level of rigorous public debate that is seldom seen in some of the countries in the region with authoritarian governments.

Despite the government’s efforts, stirring up enough interest to persuade voters to show up at the polls in large numbers remains a challenge. Voter cynicism is widespread, with many Iranians saying in interviews, in social media posts and in public election forums that they have lost faith in achieving significant changes through the ballot box and prefer an end to clerical rule.

“We resent your colorful deceptions every day,” a male university student who did not give his name said to Dr. Pezeshkian at a recent gathering at Tehran University, according to a video of the event. The crowd in the auditorium broke into cheers and applause.

The student then challenged the importance of the presidency. “What meaning does the presidency have,” he asked, “when it does not have the power to influence those above nor remain immune to interference from the intelligence apparatus?”

Dr. Pezeshkian, while generally sympathetic, told the student that, as president, he would not have the power to accomplish many of the things he asked for, like freeing political prisoners, “even if I want to.”

He went on to tell the students that he opposed the morality police, and said he had spoken out against the treatment of Mahsa Amini, the young Kurdish woman who died in the custody of the morality police in 2022, sparking a nationwide uprising.

“We do things that make women and girls hate us,” he said. “It’s our behavior that turns them confrontational.”

Iranian elections can be fluid, with candidates dropping out to solidify support among one or two contenders. For now, the front-runner is a conservative, Mohammad Baqer Ghalibaf, a former commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and former mayor of Tehran who is now the speaker of Parliament.

Mr. Ghalibaf is a strongman figure with close ties to Mr. Khamenei. Whistle-blowers and journalists have reported multiple scandals involving Mr. Ghalibaf and his family, including financial corruption and ideological heresies like preaching austerity while his relatives spend lavishly abroad. He has denied the allegations.

Navid Farrokhi, 45, an entrepreneur and business owner from Tehran who is on the advisory board of the Iran Chamber of Commerce, said he supported Mr. Ghalibaf because of his decades of administrative experience and dealings with foreign capitals in his capacity as mayor. He said he did not care about the corruption accusations.

“I’m living here, working here and managing my employees with a lot of challenges,” Mr. Farrokhi said in a telephone interview. “I want to feel like I have a say in improving our lives, and I can do it through participation in the election.”

Ali, 42, an engineer from Tehran who asked that his surname not be used for fear of retribution, said in an interview that he was warming up to Dr. Pezeshkian and considering voting for him.

“I thought that I wouldn’t vote for anyone this round of the election, but Pezeshkian is an interesting figure,” he said. “He has been straightforward and direct in his opinions and does not have stains in his political career.”

The other four conservative candidates are Saeed Jalili, an ultra-hard-liner who has served in senior roles, including as chief nuclear negotiator; Amirhossein Ghazizadeh Hashemi, a vice president in Mr. Raisi’s administration; Alireza Zakani, the current mayor of Tehran; and Mostafa Pourmohammadi, the only cleric, who has served as the director of counterintelligence at the Intelligence Ministry and as a minister of justice.

Mr. Ghalibaf has sought to make the case that he could improve the government’s efficiency. He complained during a televised round-table discussion that at least 30 percent of all oil revenues are lost in evading sanctions, an unacceptably high figure, he said, that is “a result of being uninformed, incompetent and unwise.”

The cleric, Mr. Pourmohammadi, declared in a televised debate that the Islamic Republic had all but lost the people, and that governing successfully “would require a miracle.”

“The miracle for people’s trust. The miracle of people trusting the government,” he added.

Succinctly illustrating Mr. Pourmohammadi’s point was a 37-year-old engineer from Isfahan, Soheil, who also asked that his surname not be used for fear of retribution. “I won’t vote — the elections are not free,” he said in a telephone interview. “My representative is not among the candidates, and I don’t see any difference between them. None represent my wishes.”

While the candidates have been free to criticize the government, the news media has been put on a short leash. Two prominent journalists, Yashar Soltani and Saba Azarpeik, were arrested this month because of their work exposing corruption accusations against government officials, most notably Mr. Ghalibaf.

The government body issued a warning in June to all news media organizations that any coverage that could be interpreted as encouraging people not to vote or reducing voter participation would be a crime punishable with up to 74 lashes for the top executive and revocation of the publication’s license.

On Tuesday, Narges Mohammadi, the Nobel laureate and human rights activist who is serving a 10-year jail sentence, was given an additional year in prison, said Mostafa Nili, her lawyer.

The added sentence was punishment for her urging Iranians to boycott parliamentary elections in March and for criticizing Dina, Mr. Ghalibaf’s daughter, for a lavish baby shower in Turkey and her subsequent importation of nearly 500 pounds of baby clothes and related goods — despite her father’s preaching that Iranians must purchase domestic products.

The scandal became known in Iran as #babyshowergate.

Late Thursday, the Iranian judiciary announced the arrest of Vahid Ashtari, a prominent conservative whistle-blower who had exposed the baby-shower scandal.

Leily Nikounazar contributed reporting.

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