Inside Iran’s election circus

  • Themes: Iran

Rather than presaging a reformist revival, the Iranian presidential election revealed the vast chasm between the state and society-at-large.

Supporters of the presidential candidate of the reformist camp, Peseschkian, cheer at an election rally in the capital.
Supporters of Masoud Pezeshkian an election rally, June 2024. Credit: dpa picture alliance / Alamy Stock Photo

‘Are you not entertained?’

So shouts the Roman general Maximus taunting his audience after a particularly brutal bout in the gladiatorial ring in the film Gladiator. Political spectacle exists to divert and entertain and if the Islamic Republic of Iran is finding it hard to provide sufficient bread, it still has the capacity to throw a good ‘circus’. Few things entertain quite as effectively as the political spectacle of a well-run Iranian election campaign. If the last three years witnessed dull – turnout suppressing – exercises, on this occasion the Islamic Republic appeared to rediscover its mojo.

Anxious to increase turnout, the regime allowed a measure of competition, complete with vigorous and often angry debates, which proved both captivating and revealing of the authoritarianism at the heart of the system and the social malaise that underpinned it.

The contest to succeed Ebrahim Raisi began soon after his death, with the ritual mourning replaced swiftly, if somewhat indecently, by the rush to replace him. Some 80 aspiring candidates registered for the election, including four women. Then an important preliminary phase followed. Analysts and pundits argue over which of the candidates the notorious Guardian Council – the hardline body charged with vetting candidates and supervising elections – will allow to run. There are no political parties in Iran so once the candidates are selected, they then identify their ideological leanings and seek endorsements.

The geriatric Jannati, at a steady 98, emblematic of the gerontocracy that runs the Islamic Republic, pronounced the Guardian Council’s verdict after the statutory couple of days of review. There were a few surprises. One notable casualty of the opaque vetting process was Ali Larijani who many supposed had received the Leader’s blessing to run – he appeared to suggest this himself on X (formerly Twitter) – following his previous humiliating rejection in 2021. Whatever the Leader’s views, Larijani’s aspirations were ruthlessly dashed.

Of the six accepted candidates, two of which were largely there to make up the numbers, (Ghazizadeh Hashemi, a dour and uninteresting doctor, and Ali Zakani, the current Mayor of Tehran, widely regarded as a buffoon), four were self-declared Principle-ists (hardline conservatives). The one apparent outlier was Masoud Pezeshkian, a heart surgeon from Tabriz with roots in Kurdistan, who seemed at first glance to have been included to pacify the Azeri and Kurdish constituencies and was presented as running on a Reformist ticket.

The other three included the Supreme Leader’s representative on the Supreme National Security Council, Saeed Jalili (so hardline he sent his male adviser in place of his wife to a ‘meet the family’ session), the current speaker of the Parliament, Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, flamboyant, vain and corrupt, (his chief contribution to the debates was that he would build a wall to keep Afghans out), and Mostafa Pourmohammadi, who despite his service on the 1988 ‘death committee’ (alongside Raisi) was here presented as a ‘moderate’. Indeed, Pourmohammadi was to prove the real dark horse of the entire performance, laying into his colleagues and the entire Islamic Republic with almost frivolous abandon, such that some wondered whether he, rather than Pezeshkian, was the real reformist.

Such a confection of candidates took observers by surprise and has led many to reflect on the Supreme Leader’s motives. This urge to try and read the Supreme Leader’s mind is of course a hallmark of authoritarian systems. In the absence of genuine politics, it is the fodder that feeds the system and excites the analyst. Much ink is spilt discussing what none of us can really know. We can take comfort that this absence of clarity is pervasive even amongst those who can claim to be intimates, such as Larijani. The Leader must remain an enigma and act in mysterious ways, his fragile authority depends on it. In this way he encourages officials to compete for his approval.

Pezeshkian’s inclusion reflects this dynamic at work. Far from being a ‘mistake’ or the realisation that the Supreme Leader has had an epiphany, it is more likely an example of Jannati attempting to fulfil the Leader’s desire to see a better turnout. Two things may have immediately influenced him, one being former President Khatami’s announcement that he would boycott an uncompetitive election as he had the previous Majles (parliamentary) elections. Having somewhat recklessly thrown down the gauntlet, Khatami would be obliged to retract his threat if a plausible reformist candidate could be found. Thankfully Jannati had just the person in Masoud Pezeshkian who had, it was reported, been name checked by Khamenei, when he had earlier urged less stringent vetting. Khamenei had criticised the excessive vetting in the last Majles elections which had resulted in the worst turnout in the Islamic Republic’s history.

In Pezeshkian, the system appeared to have found its ‘court’ Reformist and his inclusion certainly generated (and continues to generate) far more excitement abroad than it does among ordinary Iranians, for whom all this was just part of a long-established performance. Pezeshkian had long been an outspoken critic of government methods – including repeated crackdowns – if not of the policies themselves, (he was an advocate for veiling long before they became law in the Islamic Republic). He dampened any enthusiasm by holding firm to his loyalty (and indeed affection) for the Supreme Leader, whose red lines, he stressed, would be his. His promises were rigorously vague, which some considered wise given the failures of previous presidents. But critics also pointed out that he had only held a single ministerial portfolio – that of Health in Khatami’s second term – and that his political experience was largely that of a marginal Majles deputy. If Rouhani the national security insider could not shift the deep state, what chance Pezeshkian?

As sympathetic as he appeared to be Pezeshkian has proved to be an underwhelming performer – littering his comments with religious idioms and English phrases. This is not an indication of fluency. Much of the energy has come from his supporters, most notably the former Foreign Minister who negotiated the JCPOA, Javad Zarif. This sorely tested the limits of his popularity – which is not as widespread as some people in the West think. He clearly enjoyed campaigning far more than he enjoyed being an Associate Professor at Tehran University: in a series of rumbunctious performances both on TV and at hustings, Zarif berated Pezeshkian’s opponents for having obstructed the development of the country and obstructed the JCPOA. The battle over the past was fought with alarming frankness. This would, at the very least, have amused the wider population for whom elections are the one time they get a window into the workings of the political system. There was much dirty linen washed in public and few will have come away thinking that the Islamic Republic is thriving.

However by far the most dramatic interventions came from Pourmohammadi who casually dismissed his involvement in the extrajudicial murder of 4000 prisoners as the historical responsibility of the Islamic Republic for whom he was a simple judge doing his legal duty, criticised the incompetence of his rivals, including Jalili, for having opposed signing up to the FATF, (Iran along with North Korea and Mayanmar remains on the Financial Action Task Force blacklist). Knowing he had no chance of winning at all, and indeed didn’t much care who won, Pourmohammadi appeared to be having the most fun, criticising pretty much everything and everyone (other than the Leader) he could lay his hands on. At one stage, as if teasing the interviewer, and clearly aware of the loaded nature of the term, Pourmohammadi argued that only someone who understood the ‘mafia’ could run Iran. Digging deep for his inner Corleone, he stressed that the ‘God’ (i.e. Godfather) was really the most important person in any system.

As entertaining as this all was it did little to shift the dial as far as turnout was concerned. In the run up to the first vote, Zakani and Ghazizadeh Hashemi dropped out, and while Pourmohammadi stayed, the competition was really between Jalili and Pezeshkian with Qalibaf as an outlier. Both Jalili and Pezeshkian boasted of impressive rallies, none of which could be verified and with an increasingly sense of urgency Pezeshkian’s camp pulled out every available endorsement and lever, even somewhat dangerously alluding to the Green Movement of 2009, with some supporters chanting Mir Hossein Musavi’s name (Musavi for his part resolutely refused to participate, unlike his Green Movement ally, Karrubi). Khamenei who will have clearly been irked by such a development made an impromptu intervention urging whoever might win to appoint a revolutionary government and not to think that salvation lay with America.

Pezeshkian’s campaign grew anxious that a low turnout would hurt their candidate. It was generally accepted that hardliners could call on a core vote of some 25-30 per cent of the electorate and that any turnout below 50 per cent would consequently favour them. In the event with turnout barely reaching 40 per cent, a record low for a presidential election, Pezeshkian still led the field with Jalili coming second. His camp remained anxious about making up the numbers in the second round and there was much chatter about manipulation. But what was perhaps most striking about these figures is what it revealed about the hardline base which by all accounts was even lower than people had realised: a significant part of the conservative vote was soft enough to shift when given a choice.

Fearful that the low turnout would hurt them, a despairing Zarif pleaded with cynics in the final week of the election, that at the very least it was better to have a seat at the table. New endorsements came from a raft of economic experts including the former Central Bank Governor Adeli and notably Rouhani’s Minister of Economy, Ali Tayebnia, who’d resigned in disgust after Rouhani’s first term complaining about the deep structural economic malaise affecting the country. Pezeshkian even went so far as to state that he would never lie to the country and that if he did, he would be the first to lay his head on the block – an assurance that his opponents were quick to pick up on. Ultimately, they deployed Project Fear, arguing (with some justification) that Jalili would make matters even worse. This tipped the balance and with a turnout that scraped to 49.5 per cent, Pezeshkian made it across the line.

What was missing from all this campaigning was any concrete idea about what any of the candidates would actually do. Much of the debating time was spent point scoring against opponents and arguing over a political situation that no longer existed. Iran’s international problems are no longer limited to the JCPOA nuclear agreement and ‘rejoining’ is no longer an option. There was no substantive debate on the terms of the JCPOA or how sanctions might be removed and President-elect Pezeshkian has reaffirmed Iran’s support for the Axis of Resistance and Russia.

The only person ironically to provide some sort of vision of the future, even if it was science-fantasy, was Jalali, whose computer generated campaign film was striking for its absence of any religious motifs or indeed nuclear power. It was solar power that Jalili would bring to a hi-tech Iran replete with mechanised agriculture, electric cars and high-speed trains. More sanguine economists noted that Iran could really learn a lesson or two from Vietnam.

In an ideal world, the regime would crave a high turnout in which everyone voted for hardliners. What it has found repeatedly is that the cost of a high turnout is the victory of dissidents and what we may now loosely term as reformists. Rather than a reformist revival, what has been truly striking about the recent election has been the resilience and cohesion of wider society exposing some stark fault lines with the state. Turnout barely exceeded what Raisi achieved in 2021 – already a record low – and people expressed their disillusion with the Islamic republic in terms that even the Reformist elite found difficult to overcome. This was, we ought to remember, not a planned boycott but an organic one and it was highly effective.

The regime might congratulate itself on an election well run, but the reality is, it exposed the widening chasm between state and society. People want structural not incremental change, still less the sort of sticking plaster that Pezeshkian has offered to place on the wound. The time for circuses is over. But even this respite was enough to persuade that soft conservative constituency to shift. The hardline core is shrinking. Whether the Supreme Leader has received and understood this message is anyone’s guess, but at least we were all entertained.


Ali Ansari