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Iran holds runoff presidential vote pitting hard-line former negotiator against reformist lawmaker

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (news agencies) — Iranians began voting Friday in a runoff election to replace the late President Ebrahim Raisi, killed in a helicopter crash last month, as public apathy has become pervasive in the Islamic Republic after years of economic woes, mass protests and tensions in the Middle East.

Voters face a choice between the hard-line former nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili and Masoud Pezeshkian, a heart surgeon and longtime parliament member who has allied himself with moderates and reformists within Iran’s Shiite theocracy.

An initial round of voting June 28 saw no candidate get over 50% of the vote, forcing the runoff. It also saw the lowest turnout ever for an Iranian election, leaving turnout Friday a major question.

There have been calls for a boycott, including from imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize laureate Narges Mohammadi, though potential voters in Iran appear to have made the decision not to participate last week on their own as there’s no widely accepted opposition movement operating within or outside of the country.

State television broadcast images of modest lines at select polling places around the country as polls opened Friday.

As has been the case since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, women and those calling for radical change have been barred from the ballot while the vote itself will have no oversight from internationally recognized monitors.

The voting comes as wider tensions have gripped the Middle East over the Israel-Hamas war in the Gaza Strip. In April, Iran launched its first-ever direct attack on Israel over the war in Gaza, while militia groups that Tehran arms in the region — such as the Lebanese Hezbollah and Yemen’s Houthi rebels — are engaged in the fighting and have escalated their attacks.

Meanwhile, Iran continues to enrich uranium at near weapons-grade levels and maintains a stockpile large enough to build — should it choose to do so — several nuclear weapons. Its 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, reached by officials now backing Pezeshkian, collapsed in 2018 after then-President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew America from the accord. In the time since, hard-liners have taken control of all levers of power within Iran’s government.

While Iran’s 85-year-old Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has the final say on all matters of state, presidents can bend the country’s policies toward confrontation or negotiation with the West.

Interior Minister Ahmad Vahidi, who is in charge of overseeing the election, announced all the polls had opened at 8 a.m. local time.

Khamenei cast one of the election’s first votes from his residence, television cameras and photographers capturing him dropping the ballot into the box.

“I have heard that people’s enthusiasm is more than before,“ Khamenei said. “God willing, people vote and choose the best” candidate.

However, Khamenei on Wednesday said that those who didn’t vote last week weren’t against the country’s Shiite theocracy.

“There are reasons behind this matter which should be examined by sociologists and those involved in politics,” he said.

More than 61 million Iranians over the age of 18 are eligible to vote, with about 18 million of them between 18 to 30. Elections are scheduled to end at 6 p.m. local, but traditionally get extended until midnight to boost participation.

Friday’s election marks only Iran’s second presidential runoff since 1979. The first came in 2005, when hard-liner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad bested former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Under Ahmadinejad, Iran faced international sanctions over its advancing nuclear program, as well as the 2009 Green Movement protests and the crackdown that smashed them.

Pezeshkian’s supporters have been warning Jalili will bring a “Taliban”-style government into Tehran, while Jalili has criticized Pezeshkian for running a campaign of fear-mongering.

The 63-year-old Raisi died in the May 19 helicopter crash that also killed the country’s foreign minister and others. He was seen as a protege of Khamenei and a potential successor as supreme leader. Still, many knew him for his involvement in the mass executions that Iran conducted in 1988, and for his role in the bloody crackdowns on dissent that followed protests over the 2022 death of Mahsa Amini, a young woman detained by police over allegedly improperly wearing the mandatory headscarf, or hijab.

Karimi reported from Tehran, Iran.


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