Mahsa Amini Protests Loom Over Iran’s Presidential Election

A woman holds a placard with a picture of Mahsa Amini during a protest. Credit - Markus Schreiber—AP Photo

Since Iran announced it would hold a snap presidential election on Friday, June 28 after the sudden death of President Ebrahim Raisi in a helicopter crash last month, Iranian activists have taken to the streets to denounce the regime and boycott the electoral process.

In the latest example, 26 family members of slain Iranian protesters and dissidents issued a joint statement on Wednesday, June 26, calling the election a “circus” and accusing it of being “staged” by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. They include Gohar Eshghi, the mother of Sattar Beheshti, an Iranian blogger who was tortured and killed in prison, and Azamat Azhdari, whose sister Ghanimat Azhdari was on a Ukrainian flight when it was shot down by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards in 2020. “In recent years, the ruling regime in Iran has grieved thousands of families by execution and direct firing at thousands of our young sons and daughters…for protesting inequality, unemployment, oppression and lack of freedom,” the members stated.

Read more: Why Iranian Protesters Chant ‘Woman, Life, Liberty’

Nazanin Boniadi, an Iranian activist based in London, says these calls echo the spirit of the “Women, Life, Liberty” protest movement of 2022, which spread across the country after a young Iranian woman named Mahsa Jina Amini died while under the custody of Iran’s morality police for violating the mandatory hijab law.

Since then, thousands of Iranian women and girls have spoken out against the clerical regime by chanting, dancing, and burning their hijab on the streets—in what has widely been regarded as the most radical act against the Islamic Republic since it was formed in 1979. In response, Iranian lawmakers ordered a bloody crackdown against the protestors, with more than 500 killed by state security forces and tens of thousands arrested, according to a U.N. fact-finding mission.

“This regime is neither representative of nor accountable to the Iranian people, which is why they are calling on voters to boycott this election,” Boniadi says.

Although Iran announced it would abolish the morality police in December 2022, Khamenei backtracked on this commitment the following April, saying that observing the hijab law was a moral and political obligation. Since then, Iran’s Parliament passed a new bill in September which could see defiant women face up to 10 years in prison. More recently, lawmakers have been deliberating over the Noor (or “Light”) Plan, an initiative that would enforce punitive damages on women for disobeying the law, including blocked access to social services and bank accounts, as well as travel bans.

Friday’s presidential election will be the first held since the protests, with women representing half of Iran’s 61 million eligible voters. It features four candidates, with experts noting that the president’s office will hold limited influence over Iran’s institutions and critical decisions.

Supporters of reformist Iranian presidential candidate Massoud Pezeshkian lift his portraits during a rally in Tehran on June 26, 2024.<span class="copyright">Raheb Homavandi—AFP/Getty Images</span>
Supporters of reformist Iranian presidential candidate Massoud Pezeshkian lift his portraits during a rally in Tehran on June 26, 2024.Raheb Homavandi—AFP/Getty Images

Yet, many of the candidates have refrained from expressing support for violent methods of enforcing the law, including arrests and monetary fines—a stark contrast to the late President Raisi, a hardline cleric. While only one candidate, reformist Masoud Pezeshkian, has criticized the hijab law, others, including current parliament speaker Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, have stated that the law should be enforced more softly. Mostafa Pourmohammadi, a conservative presidential candidate and cleric with senior roles in intelligence, said during a round-table discussion on state television last week that “politics aside, under no circumstances should we treat Iranian women with such cruelty.”

Read more: The Candidates Running To Be Iran’s Next President

But these statements have not done much to sway the disillusionment of voters, a trend that was reflected in the record low voter turnout in the 2021 presidential election, predating the Mahsa Amini protests, and in last year’s parliamentary elections. “One of the most popular protest slogans of 2022 was ‘reformists, hardliners, it’s the end,’ suggesting the Iranian people’s utter disillusionment with the entire system and a call for fundamental political change,” says Boniadi.

Over the weekend, over 500 teachers, union activists, and prominent cultural figures issued another joint statement publicly declaring their decision to abstain from voting. “Engaging in the electoral process, even under the assumption of a victory by a reformist candidate, is futile and does not offer solutions to ongoing issues,” the statement read. “Moreover, it risks legitimizing the government and escalating suppression of dissent and protest.”

Meanwhile, Iranian authorities have renewed the crackdown on women who defy the hijab law. The New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran estimates that at least 12 women activists have been sentenced to prison since President Raisi’s death in May, some as long as 21 years, in prosecutions that were “lacking any semblance of due process or fair trial rights, including the denial of chosen counsel.”

That includes prominent women’s rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Narges Mohammadi, who has also issued a call from prison urging a boycott of the presidential vote, saying it only supports “a regime that believes in repression, terror and violence.” On June 18, Mohammadi was sentenced to an additional year in prison.

Read More: Angelina Jolie Talks to Narges Mohammadi

“The Iranian civil society and the broader populace are acutely aware that what is being presented as an election is, in reality, a selection process,” says Hadi Ghaemi, the executive director of the New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran. “They know that their participation would only serve to legitimize a government that is neither accountable nor responsive to the people.”

Write to Astha Rajvanshi at