• D.C.
  • BXL
  • Lagos
  • Dubai
  • Beijing
  • SG
  • D.C.
  • BXL
  • Lagos
Semafor Logo
  • Dubai
  • Beijing
  • SG

Updated Jun 26, 2024, 4:48pm EDT
Middle East
icon

Semafor Signals

Iran’s presidential election may mean more of the same

Insights from The Atlantic Council, Chatham House, Human Rights Watch, and Nikkei

Arrow Down
Masoud Pezeshkian's supporters at a campaign event in June.
Majid Asgaripour/WANA (West Asia News Agency) via Reuters
PostEmailWhatsapp
Title icon

The News

Iran will elect a new president on Friday after the death of former President Ebrahim Raisi, a hardliner seen as a potential successor to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in a helicopter crash last month.

Six candidates have been approved by Iran’s Guardian Council. Parliament Speaker Mohammed Bagher Qalibaf — closely linked to the country’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guards — is the apparent front-runner, while reformist candidate Masoud Pezeskian has called for improved relations with the US and a softened stance on the hijab.

AD

Khamenei urged “maximum” turnout amid concerns over voter apathy: 65% of Iranians plan to boycott the election, according to the Netherlands-based Gamaan Institute.

icon

SIGNALS

Semafor Signals: Global insights on today's biggest stories.

In office, reformists are largely confined to shifts in tone, not action

Source icon
Sources:  
The Atlantic Council, Chatham House

Elected officials in Iran operate somewhat like bureaucrats tasked with implementing the state’s wishes (former reformist President Mohammed Khatami once described his office as “the system’s footman”) rather than policymakers with agency, a columnist noted in the Atlantic Council. If Pezeshkian takes a large share of the first-round vote, it could drive a higher turnout in the run-offs if voters decide to try and stave off a more conservative alternative, but beyond exposing the divides within Iranian society, getting a reformist in office will likely result only in tonal shifts, an analyst at think tank Chatham House told Semafor. Indeed, insofar as the election offers the regime an opportunity to project legitimacy, Khamenei could regard high turnout as a “victory” in itself, she added.

What the candidates aren’t saying matters, too

Source icon
Sources:  
The New York Times , Human Rights Watch, Bahá'í International Community’s UN Representative

The issue of mandatory hijab-wearing for Iranian women and girls has become a “hot campaign topic,” with all six candidates seeking to distance themselves to some degree from violent enforcement tactics, The New York Times reported. But perhaps as striking — albeit unsurprising — is their silence on Iran’s long-standing treatment of ethnic and religious minorities, and the Bahá’í in particular, the deputy director of the Middle East division at Human Rights Watch told Semafor. The state-sponsored persecution of the Bahá’í — laid out in a 1991 memorandum which included instructions for the Bahá’í to be expelled from universities, arbitrarily imprisoned, and kept living at subsistence levels — is “so ingrained that it has been the case regardless of who has come to power,” the Bahá’í International Community’s United Nations’ Representative told Semafor.

Iran’s foreign policy approach will likely remain the same, albeit perhaps with some ‘tactical leniency and stylistic changes’

Source icon
Sources:  
Foreign Policy, Nikkei, Foreign Policy in Focus

The division between Tehran and Washington, particularly after former President Donald Trump pulled out of a long-negotiated nuclear deal in 2018, means there may be no Iranian politician willing to risk rapprochement with the US, the president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft told Foreign Policy. Iran’s new president may continue the country’s Look to the East strategy of prioritizing relations with Russia and China, instead, and even if the reformist Pezeshkian wins, he is unlikely to make much effort to revive relations with the US if Trump returns to the White House, a columnist argued in Nikkei. Leadership changes have historically enabled foreign policy shifts, but Iran’s approach will likely remain the same after this election, “though perhaps with some tactical leniency and stylistic changes,” a columnist argued in Foreign Policy in Focus.

Semafor Logo
AD