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Iran's president died last month. Voters are about to pick his replacement

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Tomorrow, Iranian voters decide who replaces their late president. Ebrahim Raisi died in a helicopter crash last month. He was seen as a hard-line religious conservative in line with the country's ultimate authority, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Five of the candidates vying to replace Raisi are also seen as hard-line conservatives. But one reformist candidate is gaining popularity. I spoke with Sina Toossi, a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy, a progressive independent think tank,c and I started by asking if the choice for Iran's president matters.

SINA TOOSSI: In Iran, the president does not have decisive power to fundamentally reorient a lot of the policies of the government, especially on key national security issues, Iran's overall foreign policy approach, or many domestic issues as well in terms of in a major way opening up the country, allowing for more political and social freedoms. At the same time, the presidency is not powerless. I would say that they are the second most powerful figure in Iran. And the presidential administration shapes all of the government ministries, including the foreign ministry, for example, manages the economy, and they will ultimately have to compromise with the Supreme leader and the revolutionary guards, but they could prioritize different goals in domestic and foreign policy.

FADEL: And do you have a sense of what's top of mind for voters in Iran?

TOOSSI: Economic issues are the foremost issue in Iran's political discussions regarding this election right now. So the emphasis is on getting sanctions removed, which highlights their detrimental impact on the economy. But social issues, political issues are also important for many voters.

FADEL: Is the election seen as a free and fair process from the selection of the candidates to the integrity of the ballot box?

TOOSSI: So Iranian elections are not free and fair, but at times they have been competitive. Now, this election stands out in contrast to the previous election since 2020 in that a more prominent reformist figure has been allowed to run, Masoud Pezeshkian.

FADEL: I mean, just to be clear for our listeners, even to get to the ballot, the Guardian Council has to vet the candidates. And with the six candidates, as you mentioned, there's a reformer among them.

TOOSSI: So it is interesting that the Guardian Council has made this decision now. There is different speculation within Iran as to why this occurred. Many people say that the Islamic Republic system, having had historically low turnouts in recent elections, is trying to increase legitimacy for itself and allow a more competitive election to increase turnout. Pezeshkian is someone who is a five-time Parliamentarian. He's been part of this government for many years. But his track record is of advocating for more social and political freedoms. He's criticized the morality police in the wake of the Women, Life, Freedom movement of 2022. After the death in custody of Mahsa Amini at the hands of the morality police, he gave an interview on state television where he condemned her death and the approach of the government to forcefully enforce the hijab.

FADEL: What is he promising?

TOOSSI: To the extent that he can, he's going to push for lowering the presence of the morality police on the streets. He has said he would be a voice for this constituency that has had all these grievances in recent years. But this is a tall order because many people are fundamentally disenchanted by the Islamic Republic.

FADEL: Now, how different is he from the other five candidates? And is there an obvious front-runner here?

TOOSSI: Yes. So the interesting and surprising thing with the presidential debates is that they have really centered on this issue of negotiations, of sanctions, of relations with the outside world. So we've seen that Pezeshkian, the reformist candidate during the debates, has emphasized that he will pursue the lifting of sanctions through negotiations.

FADEL: Oh, so he's open to reopening nuclear talks with the West?

TOOSSI: Yes, yes. So he has strongly defended the nuclear deal. In the face of, you know, the hard- line candidates in the race, Pezeshkian has really emphasized that it can't just rely on China and Russia. He's called for more balanced foreign relations. But at the same time, it's not black and white, even amongst the conservative candidates. The more traditional conservative candidate is the parliamentary speaker, Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf. And he has also highlighted the detrimental impact of sanctions and said he would also pursue diplomacy to lift them. Now, this is in contrast with the most hard line candidate, Saeed Jalili, who's a former nuclear negotiator himself, who's really emphasized self-reliance and not negotiating to lift sanctions, but neutralizing sanctions.

FADEL: Sina Toossi is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy. Thank you so much for your time and your insights.

TOOSSI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.