Election offers little hope of change for Iran’s youth

Election offers little hope of change for Iran’s youth

According to a Dutch survey, at least 65 percent of voters will boycott the upcoming election (File/AFP)
According to a Dutch survey, at least 65 percent of voters will boycott the upcoming election (File/AFP)
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Iranian voters will head to the polls on Friday to pick the country’s next president. This special presidential election was necessitated by the death in a helicopter crash of President Ebrahim Raisi, along with top aides, last month. His death came a year before his first four-year term as president was due to end.

Raisi, a hard-liner, had little impact on the Islamic Republic’s foreign policy and many wonder if he had done much to improve the lives of the 85 million Iranians. His death upset the plans of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to prepare Raisi as his possible successor. Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian also succumbed in the crash, dealing a blow to the country’s robust new approach to normalize ties with its neighbors, pursue a strong anti-Israel policy and initiate indirect dialogue with the Biden administration through mediators to lift sanctions and renew the nuclear deal.

The election will take place almost two years after the Islamic Republic was rocked by nationwide protests in the wake of the death of a young Kurdish woman, Mahsa Amini, in police custody in 2022. Protesters challenged the country’s 45-year-old clerical rule, demanding an end to the suppression of personal freedoms and denouncing the dire economic conditions.

The government’s ruthless clampdown on protesters resulted in at least 200 deaths, according to the government, but the real figure may be in the thousands, according to rights groups. Thousands were arrested, several activists were tried and seven were executed. The crackdown on the protests underlined the clerical regime’s refusal to make concessions or revise its policies.

According to a Dutch survey, at least 65 percent of voters will boycott the upcoming election

Osama Al-Sharif

In March, a UN fact-finding mission accused the regime of serious rights violations, many amounting to crimes against humanity. The mission found that the Iranian authorities committed murder, torture, rape and other crimes during the crackdown.

The aftershocks can still be felt across Iran, especially by the youth. According to a Dutch survey, at least 65 percent of voters will boycott the upcoming election. There is a feeling among the youth that, whoever becomes president, little will change.

Under the 1989 constitutional reforms, the prime minister’s office was abolished and his powers were transferred to the president. However, the supreme leader holds the real power, especially concerning foreign policy, the nuclear program and significant domestic reforms.

Since then, Iranians have elected five presidents: two reformists and three conservatives, including Raisi. All had gone through a rigorous vetting process by the Guardian Council, which is affiliated with Khamenei, before they were allowed to run. Even then, there have always been allegations of election fraud. In 2009, reformist Mir-Hossein Mousavi, a former prime minister, was believed to have won the election but was denied victory, prompting protests, especially by the youth, in what became known as the Green Movement.

This time, only six candidates — five conservatives and one reformist — have been allowed to run out of at least 80 applicants. The moderate candidate, Masoud Pezeshkian, is believed to have been allowed to run to appease the reformists. When Raisi ran in 2021, no reformist candidates were allowed to contest the election.

Pezeshkian’s candidacy may be to woo back the disgruntled youth following the 2022 protests. Still, he faces tough competition in the poll. Among his main rivals is Parliament Speaker Mohammed Baqer Qalibaf, who is also a former mayor of Tehran. He has run before without success. Other candidates include former Interior Minister Mostafa Pourmohammadi, Saeed Jalili, a former chief nuclear negotiator, and current Tehran Mayor Alireza Zakani.

Pezeshkian’s candidacy may be to woo back the disgruntled youth following the 2022 protests

Osama Al-Sharif

Pourmohammadi is proving to be the biggest threat to Pezeshkian, as he is also targeting the youth. Departing from the main conservative line, Pourmohammadi has vowed to end the controversial morality police, relax the blocking of social media networks and push for negotiations with the US. Last week, he appeared on state TV with his daughter, who holds a doctorate in economics and is his senior adviser. He asked her to speak about the pain of US sanctions and the need to lift them through talks.

He is now pushing himself as a moderate conservative to distance himself from the more extreme conservatives. On the other hand, Pezeshkian, a heart surgeon, former health minister and longtime member of parliament, has won the endorsement of Javad Zarif, who served as foreign minister under President Hassan Rouhani. This could endear him to the West if he wins — Pezeshkian has vowed to push diplomacy to revive the nuclear deal and lift US sanctions.

Reformist presidents in Iran tend to prioritize issues such as social freedoms, human rights and diplomatic engagement with the international community. They often advocate for more moderate policies compared to the hard-liners within the government. Some key characteristics of a reformist president in Iran include a willingness to negotiate with other countries, support for greater civil liberties and a desire to improve Iran’s image on the world stage.

The other candidates are more in line with the ayatollah’s anti-Western position and his rejection of concessions on diverse issues, from talks with the US to easing the grip of the morality police and revising women’s rights. They are also close to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and its policies, especially concerning the backing of pro-Iran proxies.

It remains unclear who will win and whether the state will interfere in the election’s outcome. There will likely be a runoff before the new president’s name is known.

But the real question remains: Who will replace Khamenei, who is now 85? He holds the real power in Iran and it is he who will have the final say on how the country proceeds on crucial issues such as its nuclear program, its relations with its neighbors and how it runs its proxy wars. Discussion of a successor to the supreme leader is not a public issue in Iran.

For most Iranian youth, little is expected to change regarding the challenges facing them, such as unemployment, personal freedoms and women’s rights. For most, Iran’s regional ambitions are not a priority and, until there is a significant shift in the country’s national priorities, apathy and indifference are likely to prevail.

  • Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman. X: @plato010
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