Iran’s 2024 election: Will the presidential run-off vote lead Iran back toward the West, or Russia and China?

Over the weekend, Iranians voted to elect a new president to replace Ibrahim Raisi, who was killed in a helicopter crash in May. At least, some Iranians did.  

Voter turnout was barely 40%, the lowest in Iran‘s presidential electoral history. Millions of Iranians, disillusioned by decades of undelivered political promises, simply stayed home on voting day. When it was all over, neither of the two leading candidates — the more moderate Masoud Pazeshkian nor hardliner Saeed Jalili — had won more than 50% of the vote, and the right to claim the presidency.

That means there will be a second, run-off round of voting on July 5, with only those two men on the ballot.

CBS News senior foreign correspondent Elizabeth Palmer sat down in Tehran after the first round with CBS News’ long-time Iran producer, Seyed Bathaei, to discuss the candidates, their ability to improve people’s lives, and how they might influence the trajectory of Iran’s relations with the West.

What follows is a transcript of their discussion, which has been edited for clarity and to remove repetition. You can watch the video of the conversation in the player at the top of this page.

Elizabeth Palmer: We’re headed for a run-off between the two main candidates from this first round. Tell us a little bit about them — first of all, Mr. Jalili.

Seyed Bathaei: Well, Mr. Jalili is being called a hardliner. He himself likes to be called a principlist. He was a tough [nuclear] negotiator long ago… known for his tough stance against the West. So many people believe that if he becomes the Iranian president, then Iran probably will have much more trouble with the West.

Iranian presidential election goes to runoff


Palmer: How does Mr. Jalili propose to fix the economy, if it’s not by trying to thaw things with the West and the U.S.?

Bathaei: He has promised that they would rely on local resources rather than looking to the West to solve problems, meaning that even if the nuclear deal is not renegotiated, Iran can still get along okay.

Palmer: By being radically self-sufficient? A sort of a 100% made-in-Iran policy?

Bathaei: Yes. Also focussing on how Iran now has got many strong, powerful friends — Russia and China. Iran really relies on these relationships…[which is] being called a pivot to the East.

Palmer: So, Mr. Jalili would be comfortable looking for support from the East, especially Russia and China and in effect turning his back on the West, America and Europe?

Bathaei: Iranian officials — the whole administration — have said that this is the West’s fault, because the West backed away from the nuclear deal, and that the West who was not happy with the results of the negotiations. They say the West was never seriously engaged, economically, with Iran. So, Iran is now looking to the East instead.

Palmer: But the deal did ease sanctions a little bit and life did improve somewhat. How do they explain that?

Bathaei: That is the argument of people who are disappointed with the administration, and they want some changes, and this is what Mr. Pezeshkian, the other candidate, the moderate, has promised.  

Palmer: Tell us a little bit about him.

FILE PHOTO: Presidential candidates Masoud Pezeshkian and Saeed Jalili attend an election debate, in Tehran
Presidential candidates Masoud Pezeshkian and Saeed Jalili attend an election debate at a television studio in Tehran, Iran, July 1, 2024.

Morteza Fakhri Nezhad/IRIB/WANA/Handout via REUTERS

Bathaei: Mr. Pezeshkian is a long-time member of parliament. A heart surgeon himself, he was for some time the Minister of Health and has promised to repair, as much as he can, the relationship with the West. He believes that rules on many issues people have protested against over the last two years, including the wearing of the hijab, should be eased. Some people believe that he can deliver, but many also think that within the framework of Iran’s present constitution, he will not be able to keep many of those promises.

Palmer: What power does the President actually have, given that the big national strategy is set by the Supreme Leader?

Bathaei: Well, as you know…., in Iran, a president is almost equal to a vice president in Western democracies. The president can set the tone and has some limited administrative power, but they cannot change foreign policy, for example.

Palmer: Does it matter to the average citizen who the president is? Do you feel it in your life?

Bathaei: Well, the nation is divided. Some people think that yes, they matter, because they …[implement] rules and regulations. But maybe those who didn’t participate in yesterday’s election believe that, no, the president doesn’t matter, because nothing will change anyway.

Palmer: Now that this race has been distilled to two candidates, on opposite ends of the spectrum, is it likely to push all kinds of people to the polls for the second round? Those who didn’t come out in the first, perhaps?

Bathaei: I think that’s what both candidates are counting on. But Iranians are so unpredictable, so who knows? Next Friday a lot of people might show up to decide who the next president is, and maybe the result might trigger some changes, even if they’re small.

Palmer: Would you say that economic well-being is the number one issue for most voters, many of whom have been burdened by sanctions?

Iranians feel the impact of U.S. sanctions on anniversary of Islamic Revolution


Bathaei: Yes, I believe the economy is the most important matter. People who go to the polling stations want to be able to put food on the table, to be able to support their families, to be able to support their children through school. But we also have many young people, intellectuals, university students, who want to have better relationships with the West so that they can go and spend time there, to study or visit their families. They also want hardline rules, like those governing women’s dress code and music, to be eased.

Palmer: Those issues are very contentious. As you mentioned, they were at the root of the big uprisings in 2022. Does a president actually have the power to change those things, or to adjust or to lighten the burden of such rules?

Bathaei: Well, many people believe so. There are of course things that cannot be drastically changed, even if the president wants to, because of religion. The Islamic Republic of Iran cannot denounce the hijab, for example, but it could definitely change how the laws surrounding it are implemented.

Palmer: Stricter or not so strict, it’s a question of degree?

Bathaei: Yes, and how people chanting in the streets are treated.

Palmer: So just allowing a little bit of dissent to show, a little bit of the people’s demands and dissatisfaction, is something a president could do, as opposed to ordering a harsh crackdown?

Bathaei: Yes, I think so. It’s not expected that the next president will go and make friends with the U.S. or be an ally with the West, but definitely, the little steps in either direction matter.

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