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Iran election: Who are the front-runners vying to succeed Raisi?

By Li Ruikang

Six presidential candidates sit side by side at Iran's state television studio for a debate in Tehran, June 20, 2024. /CFP
Six presidential candidates sit side by side at Iran's state television studio for a debate in Tehran, June 20, 2024. /CFP

Six presidential candidates sit side by side at Iran's state television studio for a debate in Tehran, June 20, 2024. /CFP

Three of the six candidates approved by Iran's electoral vetting body to run in next week's election are believed to have the best chances of succeeding the late President Ebrahim Raisi, who died in a helicopter crash last month.

Ideological differences and governance preferences have divided the six candidates into two camps, with only one categorized as a reformist and the other five as conservatives. A more nuanced look, however, would separate the conservatives into moderates and hard-liners.

With the three main contenders representing each of these camps, the June 28 poll and possibly the second round of voting on July 5 if no candidate secures a clear victory, will determine which camp prevails.

Under Raisi's presidency, the Islamic Republic had been grappling with soaring inflation and increasing economic isolation due to sanctions reimposed by the U.S. after the Trump administration withdrew from a 2015 nuclear deal. He also oversaw Iran's warming of ties with regional foes led by Saudi Arabia, a diplomatic achievement he secured under the mediation of China.

In any case, the late president's legacy will be more or less preserved if the election is won by either one of the conservative front-runners – Parliament Speaker Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf and former chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili.

The two share similar beliefs with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei on the country's overall trajectory and had quit their presidential campaigns at different times in favor of Raisi, who had been tipped as a potential successor to Khamenei. However, their stated approach to foreign policy and Iran's nuclear program have set them apart.

Qalibaf, who had worked as an air force commander in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), chief of police and mayor of Tehran, wields vast influence among pragmatic elites who seem to be more concerned with Iran's economy than their hard-line counterparts. He advocates for rapid modernization and re-engagement with the global market to prop up the economy.

In a televised presidential debate, Qalibaf pledged to embark on a path that would eventually remove U.S. sanctions. Such efforts will be challenging as all previous talks on reviving the deal proved futile, with the diplomatic drive now taking a backseat after continuous failures to reach an agreement.

However, Khamenei, who has the final say on major Iranian affairs, said last week he was not opposed to a deal with the West, so long as the infrastructure of Iran's nuclear industry was not touched.

If elected, analysts say Qailbaf is likely to lead efforts to work with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), a move that would ease Western concerns about Iran's continuing enrichment of uranium. The IAEA has accused Tehran of blocking its inspections on Iranian nuclear sites, a charge previously denied by Raisi.

In his attempt to woo voters from the other side of the political spectrum, the parliament speaker has also cast himself as a free speech defender bent on fighting corruption, but some accuse him of being a "hypocrite" and having engaged in corruption himself. He denies these allegations.

A contrast to Qalibaf's relative pragmatism is Jalili's deep mistrust of the West, a view that can be traced back to his days as an IRGC volunteer fighting in the Iran-Iraq war, when the U.S. supported Iraq against its neighbor and when Jalili lost the lower portion of his right leg in combat.

Nicknamed the "living martyr," Jalili went on to obtain a PhD in political science and developed ultraconservative beliefs regarding religious and social matters. With close links to former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the university lecturer has been vehemently hostile to ideas he believes to be spread from the West, and that has translated into his resolve to turn Iran into a self-reliant country.

In his recent snubs to reformist proposals about reviving the nuclear deal, Jalili pointed out that U.S. President Joe Biden, who seems to prefer diplomacy to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, mounted tens of other sanctions on top of those imposed by his predecessor Donald Trump. Tehran has insisted it does not seek a nuclear bomb.

Notwithstanding their differences, both conservative front-runners are believed to have the backing of some of the other contenders, but none of them have dropped out of the race to stand with Qalibaf or Jalili, a practice common in Iran's presidential elections. 

If that persists, ballots are prone to be split among the conservative camp on election day, a scenario that could turn the tide in favor of Masoud Pezeshkian, the sole reformist candidate, even though he now trails the other two front-runners in some opinion polls.

A former health minister and a cardiac surgeon, Pezeshkian has served as a legislator for five consecutive terms and is believed to be supported by Iran's Kurdish and Azeri-speaking minorities. The reformist has campaigned hard to improve relations with the U.S., a message that has gained further momentum after former Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, a prominent diplomat, passionately demonstrated the crippling effects of U.S. sanctions on Iran's economy on TV.

As opposed to the conservative candidates, Pezeshkian is also less ambivalent about the country's hijab rules, a polarizing issue. In 2022, the death of a woman in police custody over the rules sparked protests across the country. He argues that Islamic laws don't grant authority to arrest women for not covering their heads. 

Central to Pezeshkian's campaign strategy is to awaken a voter base that has fallen dormant due to the country's perceived reluctance to initiate reforms. "Generation Z's problem is us. They want change, but we have not changed. They want innovation, but we have not been into innovation," he told a rally.

Whether the reformist candidate will exceed expectations to win the election rests largely on younger Iranians' willingness to vote, as many of those supporting Pezeshkian's ideas might decide to stay away on June 28 – voter turnout in Iran's elections has fallen continuously in past election cycles, with only 41 percent casting their ballots in March's parliamentary elections, the lowest in the history of the Islamic Republic.

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