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Iranians Will Head To The Polls Friday To Choose A New President


Iranians head to the polls on Friday to choose their next president. These elections come at a time when the country is facing multiple crises, an economy buckling under sanctions and mismanagement, nuclear talks that seem to be dragging on and, of course, the pandemic. A lot rides on who is voted into office. We're joined now by Mehrzad Boroujerdi, professor and director of the School of Public and International Affairs at Virginia Tech. Welcome.


DETROW: So we should start out by clarifying the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, has much more power than the president. But still, this is a very important post, right?

BOROUJERDI: Absolutely. So the supreme leader is the most important position. And then, theoretically speaking, the president is the second most important position. This person might be in office for four or eight years, and that means that, considering the age of the supreme leader, which is currently 82, he might not be around. So the question of transition to the next supreme leader becomes important, and that's an additional component of why this election has become significant.

DETROW: So we're going to talk about the choices that this next president will have to make. But first, let's walk through the candidates. We have seven candidates. They have all been pre-approved - another important thing to point out - by the Guardian Council, a very powerful body that decides who gets to run for office. Tell us a bit about the candidates and who stands out to you in this field.

BOROUJERDI: Right. So altogether, 592 candidates registered to run for the presidency. Seven of them were approved. Of the seven, we have five candidates who are rather conservative and two that are sort of moderates. There are no real representatives from the reformist camp. And so the heavy weight seems to be the current chief justice of the country, a gentleman by the name of Ebrahim Raisi, who is a cleric, a former student of the supreme leader. However, you know, judging from social media posting, it seems that the former governor of the central bank, Abdolnaser Hemmati, has emerged as sort of the hope for many moderates and reformists, considering that he's an economist who might be able to tackle the country's problem.

DETROW: You said no real reformists, but a couple of candidates are kind of framing themselves that way, right?

BOROUJERDI: Exactly. So we have two of these gentlemen - Mohsen Mehralizadeh, who is a former vice president under President Khatami, and also Mr. Hemmati, the former governor of the central bank. Now, these are, you know, sort of candidates that represent the moderate to the reformist camp, but they are really sort of second and third tier political personalities.

DETROW: There have been some complaints, including from another candidate, that lots of things are being stacked in the favor of a Raisi. Is that an accurate way to put it from what you have observed?

BOROUJERDI: Yes. I think, you know, he seems to have the support of the national TV and radio, is able to hold mass rallies despite the fact that the corona restrictions are still in effect in Iran, et cetera. And the expectation also is that some of the other four conservative candidates might actually drop out and endorse him as a way of bolstering his chances.

DETROW: The economy is a big issue in this election. And, of course, a lot of Iran's economic woes are tied to the very tough sanctions put in place when the Trump administration left the Iran nuclear deal. The Biden administration is trying to cobble back together some sort of deal. How do you see the next president affecting which direction those talks go in?

BOROUJERDI: And remember that President Rouhani is going to leave office in August, so there is still time between now and then for this agreement to be sort of finalized. Biden administration is logically holding its breath and are deciding how it needs to react to the outcome of the Iranian election and whether there is going to be really massive change in Iran's position - which, frankly, I do not expect. These TV debates that the candidates have had so far has demonstrated that the economy is number one issue in everyone's mind, and it's hard to imagine, if they do not reach an agreement on the nuclear talks, they are going to be able to improve the economy in any serious manner.

DETROW: Why are there so many predictions and concerns of low voter turnout?

BOROUJERDI: The average voter turnout in Iran has been around, you know, 67%, but I'm predicting that this time we might see a 30% drop for the following reasons. You know, people are really disenchanted. And I think after four decades, a sense is now prevailing among the citizenry that, regardless of who they elect as the president, it's not going to make much of a change because there are other players, starting with the supreme leader, and other unelected bodies that basically call the shots. And therefore the citizenry say, why bother? Now, this presidential election is going to happen concurrently with municipal elections, which, you know, are important in Iran and rather popular because, of course, you know, you have people running for city council and village council elections. So I think that might give a boost to the presidential election. But, you know, if you see a 30% drop, this will mark the first time that presidential turnout in Iran has been lower than 50%.

DETROW: That is Professor Mehrzad Boroujerdi, director of the School of Public and International Affairs at Virginia Tech. Thanks for joining us.

BOROUJERDI: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.