Heart Surgeon, Tehran Mayor Contend for Iran’s Presidency

(Bloomberg) -- Iranians will elect a new president on June 28, in a poll triggered by the death in a helicopter crash last month of Ebrahim Raisi. Voters will choose from six men selected by the Guardian Council, a powerful and unelected chamber of 12 theologians and legal experts. Most of the candidates are anti-US hard liners but a lone reformist candidate, former Health Minister Masoud Pezeshkian, leads the latest poll released by the state-run Iranian Students’ Polling Agency.

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Pezeshkian has edged into the lead over the past week, ahead of the hawkish former nuclear-programme negotiator Saeed Jalili, according to the ISPA poll published Monday. Of the 4,057 people surveyed over the weekend, just over half said they will either definitely vote or are very likely to vote, and a third said they won’t take part or are very unlikely to. Acting President Mohammad Mokhber, who stepped up after Raisi’s sudden demise, chose not to stand.

The new president will oversee a government operating under the watchful eye of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s most senior authority figure who has the final say over foreign and military policy. His challenges will include the handling of unprecedented levels of domestic dissent, a sanctions-hit economy and Iran’s role in regional conflicts such as the war in Gaza.

Below are the six candidates in the race. The winner is likely to be announced on Saturday or Sunday.

The Reformist: Masoud Pezeshkian, 69

A heart surgeon and one of the few reformist lawmakers in Iran’s hard liner-dominated parliament, Pezeshkian is a veteran politician from the moderate bloc and a former minister under reformist ex-President Mohammad Khatami. The Guardian Council’s approval of his candidacy has surprised many, because moderates have been largely marginalized from politics since the collapse of the 2015 deal with world powers over Iran’s atomic activities.

Javad Zarif, Iran’s former foreign minister — who became the global face of Iran’s efforts to secure that landmark accord — has joined Pezeshkian’s campaign team to draw more moderate voters to polling stations. He appeared alongside Pezeskhian in a live TV debate last week, his first major public appearance since being pushed out of politics in 2021.

Some prominent reformists have said Pezeshkian’s presence on the ballot could inspire disillusioned voters and boost turnout, yet the faction has lost a lot of credibility and support over recent years. Younger voters, who led uprisings against the Islamic regime in 2019 and 2022, believe moderates like Khatami and later, Hassan Rouhani, aren’t strong enough to challenge hard liners at the top of powerful institutions like the judiciary and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

The Hard Liner: Saeed Jalili, 58

Jalili is making his third run at the top job in government and is probably the most conservative candidate on the ballot. A deeply religious man, he is resolutely anti-West and believes that Iran should eschew trade relationships with those countries, particularly in Europe. He’s suspicious of any efforts to improve ties with the US and believes Iran should prioritize its Islamic identity above all else.

Jalili is a longterm critic of the now-defunct nuclear deal and, as a former negotiator, was known for his tough stance during the talks. If he’s elected, he’s likely to steer Iran closer to Russia and Asian countries such as China. Ali Bagheri, the acting foreign minister, is a former colleague and ally.

He’s considered a frontrunner in the election in part due to his support among pious regime loyalists, but his insular view of the world means he’s unlikely to be concerned about trying to free Iran from sanctions or reintegrating the Islamic Republic into the global economy. His radical views are deeply unpopular with educated, middle-class Iranians in the country’s urban centers.

The Operator: Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, 62

Former Tehran mayor and current parliament speaker Qalibaf is a serial presidential candidate standing for a fourth time. A former IRGC commander and the ex-head of Iran’s police force, he’s been criticized for his role in beating and suppressing student protesters in 1999 and the early 2000s.

Qalibaf likes to frame himself as both a traditional family man and modernizer at the same time, yet is widely thought to have amassed a personal fortune, either through institutional links or big infrastructure projects. His family’s wealth has raised questions about his finances and he’s been accused of corruption, which he denies. He’s known for some very conservative views and has called for public sidewalks to be gender segregated.

Along with Jalili, he’s one of the frontrunners because of his ties to the IRGC and fierce loyalty to Khamenei. While he has a lot of support in conservative areas, such as his home province of Razavi Khorasan, moderate-minded voters are likely to be less enamored.

The Cleric: Mostafa Pourmohammadi, 64

The only cleric on the ballot, Pourmohammadi has been close to the religious establishment since the 1979 Islamic Revolution and was appointed a judge in Iran’s southern port city of Bandar Abbas when he was just 20 years old, according to the state-run Islamic Republic News Agency. Like Raisi, he’s a conservative cleric with a reputation for administering harsh punishments and human-rights groups including Amnesty International have accused him of playing an important role in the mass execution of hundreds of political dissidents in the 1980s.

He is likely to gain limited support from voters in the country’s urban centers but may be seen elsewhere as a safe pair of hands because of his proximity to the establishment and religious credentials.

As the lone theologian in the race, his candidacy might raise questions about whether he is looking to eventually succeed Khamenei as Supreme Leader. He will be seen as a law and order candidate because of his experience running both the justice and interior ministries and his campaign has so far focused on his anti-corruption work, having previously run Iran’s top public audit office.

The Rest: Alireza Zakani, 58, and Amirhossein Ghazizadeh Hashemi, 53

Zakani, the mayor of Tehran, is the most radical and right-wing candidate on the ballot. He’s never held a senior government position and has been disqualified from running in two previous presidential elections. He is a very religious politician known for his intolerance.

Ghazizadeh Hashemi is one of Iran’s vice-presidents and is head of the Foundation of Martyrs and Veterans’ Affairs, which provides financial support and loans to veterans and the families of fallen soldiers. A surgeon by training, he was previously a lawmaker for Mashhad, Iran’s second-largest and holiest city. He was once spokesman for the same hard line, radical political party as Jalili and may decide to step aside in order to avoid splitting their vote.

--With assistance from Arsalan Shahla and Gina Turner.

(Updates subheadlines and introduction with latest state-run polling agency results; adds details in fifth paragraph.)

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