Iran’s Presidential Runoff: A Battle of Ideologies

Saeed Jalili and Dr. Masoud Pezeshkian represent polar opposites on the political spectrum.

In a politically charged atmosphere, Iran’s upcoming presidential runoff election has captured the nation’s attention. The contest pits two candidates with starkly different visions for the country’s future: Saeed Jalili, an ultraconservative hard-liner, and Dr. Masoud Pezeshkian, a pragmatic reformist. This election, the first in more than a decade where the outcome is difficult to predict, reflects deeper societal currents rather than merely the preferences for individual candidates.

The first round of voting saw a record low turnout of 40 percent, signaling widespread disenchantment among Iranians. Many abstained from voting due to frustration with the government and a sense of alienation from the political process. The runoff’s result will largely depend on whether these disillusioned citizens decide to cast their ballots this time.

Saeed Jalili and Dr. Masoud Pezeshkian represent polar opposites on the political spectrum. Jalili, known for his dogmatic views, has positioned himself as a staunch defender of Islamic revolutionary values. He rejects any accommodation with the West and advocates for strengthening ties with Russia and China. Jalili’s platform includes supporting the mandatory hijab law and imposing restrictions on the internet and social media. His candidacy has garnered support from conservative hard-liners and military commanders who see him as a continuation of the “resistance policies” of the late President Ebrahim Raisi.

In contrast, Dr. Pezeshkian has gained traction by promoting moderation in both foreign and domestic policy. He aims to negotiate with Western countries to lift sanctions, abolish the morality police, and ease social restrictions, particularly those affecting women and young people. Pezeshkian’s team comprises seasoned technocrats and diplomats, including former Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who have been vocal about the dire consequences of a Jalili presidency.

Sanam Vakil, the Middle East director for Chatham House, encapsulated the essence of this election: “This election is about competing currents, it’s not about competing candidates per se. The currents reflect an attempt at preserving revolutionary values, the Islamic ideology and the notion of resistance within the Iranian state versus an alternative that isn’t quite reform but a more moderate and open social and political climate.”

In Iran’s theocratic system, the president’s power is limited compared to that of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Despite this, the president can influence the domestic agenda, choose cabinet members, and have some sway in foreign policy. Khamenei has expressed disappointment over the low turnout in the first round but urged citizens to vote, emphasizing that participation supports the Islamic Republic. Polling stations opened on Friday at 8 a.m., and voting is expected to continue until late evening, with an extension likely due to the summer heat. The Interior Ministry assured that representatives from both candidates would oversee polling stations to ensure a fair process.

Jalili, affiliated with the hard-line Paydari party, is seen by many as an ideological leader rather than a politician. His supporters argue that he is prepared to govern and that accusations of a shadow government are exaggerated. They believe his presidency would reinforce revolutionary principles and resist Western influence.

On the other hand, Pezeshkian, a cardiologist and former health minister, is viewed by his supporters as a beacon of hope for a more open and pragmatic governance. His campaign emphasizes the necessity of engaging with the international community to revive Iran’s economy and improve civil liberties.

The election’s unpredictability stems from various factors, including potential defections from the conservative camp. Some conservatives view Jalili as too extreme and fear his presidency could exacerbate tensions with the West and deepen domestic discontent. Polls suggest that moderate conservatives, who previously supported Mohammad Baqer Ghalibaf, might shift their allegiance to Pezeshkian to prevent Jalili’s ascent.

The divide among voters is palpable. While many, like Mahsa from Isfahan, remain resolute in their decision to boycott the election, others have reconsidered, driven by a fear of Jalili’s potential presidency. Babak, a businessman from Tehran, expressed this sentiment: “We must try to stop Jalili, otherwise we will suffer more.”

Prominent figures have also voiced their concerns. Keyvan Samimi, a political activist, encouraged Iranians to vote for Pezeshkian to save Iran. The heightened rhetoric against Jalili has led to comparisons with the Taliban and accusations of extremism, while his supporters dismiss these as fear-mongering tactics. As the runoff approaches, the election has become more than a choice between two candidates. It represents a referendum on Iran’s future direction, highlighting the tension between preserving revolutionary ideals and embracing a more moderate and open society. Dr. Pezeshkian’s campaign, with its promise of reform and engagement with the West, offers a stark contrast to Jalili’s vision of resistance and conservatism.

The outcome of this election remains uncertain. Analysts, like Nasser Imani, acknowledge the unpredictability, noting that the trend is a rejection of the status quo. Whether this sentiment translates into a vote for Pezeshkian or another period of conservative dominance under Jalili will be revealed as the ballots are counted. In this critical juncture, the choice before Iranians is clear: a continuation of strict conservative policies or a shift towards moderation and engagement with the world. The decision will shape the country’s trajectory amidst its ongoing domestic and international challenges.

Sehr Rushmeen
Sehr Rushmeen
Sehr Rushmeen, an Islamabad based freelance researcher, did her MPhil from National Defence University (NDU) in Strategic Studies and her BSc from University of London (UOL) in International Relations. Her area of research interest is Strategic Nuclear Studies, Artificial Intelligence in Warfare, South China Sea and South Asian Politics. She tweets by the handle @rushmeentweets and can be reached on sehrrushmeenwrites[at]