A shorter version of this piece appeared in this week's Monday Briefing.

With just a few days left before Iranians head to the polls, it is clear that the June 28 presidential election is not exciting the country’s voters. After several televised debates, some of which have been mildly contentious, the six men in the race — the only candidates approved by the Guardian Council — have failed to energize the public. In fact, a major “no vote” campaign has been under way on social media and elsewhere, aimed at convincing Iranians to stay home.

The level of enthusiasm among voters is certainly far below what was achieved in 1997 or even in 2013, when Mohammad Khatami and Hassan Rouhani were able to persuade Iranians that it was possible to bring about political change in the Islamic Republic through the ballot box. 

Today, few Iranians appear to believe that proposition — and they have plenty of reason to be skeptical. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, a man whose agenda has shaped the country’s fate more than anything else since 1989, keeps reminding voters about the limited powers of an elected president in Iran. In a recent speech, he basically stated that voter turnout is more important than who is elected president.  

In Khamenei’s mind, higher voter turnout boosts his image, shores up the Islamic Republic’s legitimacy, and helps quash charges that he is a dictator overseeing meaningless feel-good elections, as his detractors claim. 

But then Khamenei himself goes on to stress that regardless of who wins, there will be policy continuity in the key areas of foreign and domestic affairs, stating, “Whoever becomes president has to make sure Iran keeps its political independence as a priority.”

The average Iranian knows by heart how to decode this message: Tehran will maintain its core foreign and domestic policies, such as confronting the United States and Israel and not succumbing to popular demands to loosen the draconian rules that regulate life in the country, such the enforcement of mandatory hijab (veil) for women in public. Facing such realities, it’s no wonder voters are apathetic.

On foreign policy, the one figure who has run on a platform of seeking détente with the West is Masoud Pezeshkian, the sole reformist-leaning candidate. He has vowed to make Iran once again a “player” in the region and has said he has no hesitation about negotiating and reaching agreements with rival countries — a hint to the Americans and Europeans.

But making Iran into a “player” implies that it is currently operating on the margins of regional affairs. That is certainly not the case, given Tehran’s evident role in theaters across the Middle East, from Gaza to Yemen and Lebanon to Iraq. But Pezeshkian’s point is that the rest of the region is moving ahead rapidly with national economic development plans and pan-regional energy and transportation projects without any Iranian participation. Tehran is instead engaged in a costly ideological struggle against the US, Israel, and their Arab partners. Given the necessity of self-censorship in the Iranian political system, Pezeshkian was never going to articulate it in such blatant terms, but the implication of his argument is hard to miss. 

Such a statement is illustrative of Pezeshkian’s campaign strategy. On the one hand, he swears fidelity to Khamenei and speaks of only operating within the policy frameworks as laid out by the supreme leader. And yet, on the other hand, Pezeshkian’s policy prescriptions are plainly a rejection of those that have brought Iran to this point. And it is hardly a secret that Khamenei — as the one setting the regime’s agenda — is the individual most responsible for the status quo. 

No doubt Khamenei anticipated such subtle criticism and judges Pezeshkian’s vows of allegiance to him as a formality — a stay-out-of-jail card since the supreme leader is officially beyond rebuke — and not a genuine sign of loyalty. In the days leading up to June 28 election, the schism between the two men was impossible to hide in this election parody. As more and more reformist and moderate luminaries, such as former Presidents Mohammad Khatami and Hassan Rouhani, have voiced their support for Pezeshkian, Khamenei has been forced to resort to overt intervention.

Most notably, the supreme leader has slammed Pezeshkian’s foreign policy views as naïve and dismissed the idea that Iran’s problems are linked to the standoff with the Americans. How to deal with the rest of the world is, after all, the biggest of splits between Khamenei and his fellow hardliners and the reformist-moderate camp.

In the last televised presidential debate, Pezeshkian also took aim at Khamenei’s beloved “Look East” policy and the notion that closer ties with China and Russia in a world that is fast becoming multipolar are the antidote to Tehran’s estrangement from the West.

Pezeshkian presumably must have known that taking direct aim at Khamenei’s core foreign policy beliefs — no matter how carefully worded or indirect — would not go unchallenged. But that might have been the entire point, in an effort to create some excitement around the election and convince apathetic voters to turn out.

And yet again, one is still left wondering why, even if he were to win, Pezeshkian thinks he can bring about a major shift in Tehran’s foreign policy while Khamenei is still alive and serving as supreme leader. No other president before him in the history of the Islamic Republic has been able to do that.

Herein lies the crux of voter apathy: An elected president in the Islamic Republic is at a huge disadvantage against the unelected supreme leader, whose powers are basically infinite as long as the streets do not erupt. Pezeshkian and his supporters have spent most of their time and energy trying to disprove this point, but it is unlikely they have changed many minds.

Some Iranians will certainly come out to vote on June 28, but turnout projections are hotly contested. Data published inside of Iran suggest around 40-50% of eligible voters might cast a ballot, which would be in line with the broader trend of declining voter turnout without being too humiliating for the regime.

Other sources put the figure much lower, however. According to a recent survey carried out by an organization in the diaspora, just 22% of respondents said they would definitely vote, while 65% said they would not. Given the hugely micro-managed nature of the election process, it is also totally conceivable that there will be some manipulation of turnout figures once the election is over. 

Pezeshkian’s camp hopes that turnout will exceed 60%, since higher turnout has always favored those link to the reformist movement. With that in mind, Pezeshkian’s surrogates, such as former Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, are busy pitching the idea that casting a vote still matters in the Islamic Republic and that life could become even harder if one of the five hardline candidates wins on June 28. It remains to be seen if such scare tactics will work anymore in a society that has arguably never been this depressed about the country’s future. 


Alex Vatanka is the director of the Iran Program at the Middle East Institute and a senior fellow with MEI’s Black Sea Program.

Photo by Majid Saeedi/Getty Images

The Middle East Institute (MEI) is an independent, non-partisan, non-for-profit, educational organization. It does not engage in advocacy and its scholars’ opinions are their own. MEI welcomes financial donations, but retains sole editorial control over its work and its publications reflect only the authors’ views. For a listing of MEI donors, please click here.