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Iranians decry, boycott election tipped in hard-liner’s favor by supreme leader

Iranians went to the polls Friday in a presidential election tightly-managed by the Islamic Republic's clerical elite — who allowed only 4 men on the ballot. After eight years of relative moderation under Hassan Rouhani, his likely successor is expected to be sharply conservative. Many Iranians protested the lack of choices by voting with their feet and boycotting the vote. Nick Schifrin explains.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Iranians went to the polls today in a presidential election tightly managed by the Islamic Republic's clerical elite.

    After eight years of relative moderation under Hassan Rouhani, his likely successor is expected to take a sharp conservative turn. And many Iranians, suffering under crushing economic conditions, are asking themselves, why vote, anyway?

    Nick Schifrin explains.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Today, in the Islamic Republic, Iranians patiently waited to cast their votes. Ballot boxes were disinfected. Registrations were checked. And ballots were received, filled out, and submitted.

    But while voters chose their favored candidate, religious leaders already chose for them the four men on the ballot. And many Iranians said that's no choice at all and voted with their feet to boycott.

    Fatemeh Rebaki is a 29-year-old accountant.

  • Fatemeh Rebaki (through translator):

    We are really fed up. A little peace and understanding for us people, please. We do not deserve to live this hard, listless and awful life.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Masood Mohammadian is a factory owner.

  • Masood Mohammadian, (through translator):

    I do not see a candidate who can save the country from the situation it is in, which is a dire one.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Iran's been in recession for three years. Inflation is more than 40 percent. The currency has collapsed. Unemployment is rising. And the poverty rate has increased by 50 percent.

    But many voters' anger is also about politics. The council led by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei excluded hundreds of candidates. That cleared the field for the conservative hard-line chief of the judiciary, Ebrahim Raisi. In January, one year after the U.S. killed military commander Qasem Soleimani, Raisi threatened retribution at the highest levels.

  • Ebrahim Raisi, Iranian Presidential Candidate (through translator):

    If one who orders a murder were in the position of U.S. president, under no circumstances can they escape law and justice. Those who had a role in this assassination, none of them are safe on the planet.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Raisi is a protege of the supreme leader. The U.S. says oversaw the executions of thousands of political prisoners in the 1980s. He's under U.S. sanctions for that and for a crackdown on peaceful protests during the 2009 Green Revolution.

    During the campaign, he blamed Iran's economic woes on debilitating U.S. sanctions reimposed by President Trump after the U.S. pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal in 2018. But Raisi has also vowed to clean up corruption.

    The only reform candidate still in the race is Central Bank Governor Abdolnaser Hemmati. He warns a Raisi victory would lead to more sanctions and vows to negotiate.

  • Abdolnaser Hemmati, Iranian Presidential Candidate (through translator):

    If there is the feeling that America's policy is aimed at positive coexistence to boost global and regional peace, I don't think there's any problem in sitting down and talking to them.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The U.S. and Iran are already talking indirectly in Vienna, over the U.S. rejoining the Iran nuclear deal by lifting sanctions. Iran would scale back aspects of its nuclear program that broke the deal's restrictions. Raisi is expected to endorse that agreement. But this judge knows voters will judge him on issues beyond politics.

  • Ebrahim Raisi (through translator):

    There should be no doubt that we must do everything in our power to lift these oppressive sanctions. But we shouldn't stop at that. We should try to make the economy self-sufficient. This will definitely be on the agenda, too.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And to discuss the election and the impact on the U.S., I'm joined by Ali Vaez, the Iran Project Director at the International Crisis Group, an independent organization that works to prevent wars and promote peace out.

    Ali Vaez, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

    It is about 6:20 on the East Coast, almost 3:00 a.m. in Tehran. The polls were extended to 2:00 a.m., but we still don't have an official result. But what does coronation, or apparent coronation, of a hard-liner who has been accused in the past of crimes against humanity and perhaps still accused of them say about today's Iranian regime?

  • Ali Vaez, Iran Project Director, International Crisis Group:

    Well, it actually indicates, Nick, that the Iranian system is preparing for a very pivotal moment in its history. And that's the succession of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, who was 82 years old, and is therefore empowering a client and trusted ally, in order to make sure that that transition happens smoothly, smooth — as smooth as possible.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And so is Raisi the next supreme leader? Is that what this election is about?

  • Ali Vaez:

    So, that's one scenario.

    But if the supreme leader is seeking to protect his own legacy and his own family, who actually play a role in his office — they're the power behind the veil in many ways — maybe that's not the wisest approach, because the supreme leader himself, when he came to power in 1989, quickly moved to completely marginalize the people who were responsible for him becoming powerful.

    The other scenario is that the supreme leader is seeking transformational changes, maybe changing the system from a presidential one into a parliamentary one. Or he might just be seeking a president who doesn't cause him as much headache as the four who've already served under him did.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Of course, the focus here in Washington is the impact on the U.S. and perhaps on the Iran nuclear deal.

    But does the election of someone like Raisi make it more difficult for the U.S. in general to negotiate with Iran?

  • Ali Vaez:

    So, counterintuitively, I think consolidation of power in the hands of hard-liners might not necessarily be bad news for the United States.

    It is certainly bad news for Iran, because, if my analysis is correct, and the system is getting prepared to consolidate power, it means that it's probably going to purge and repress more at home. But it needs stability abroad. It needs calm in its environment. And that means that it would be seeking de-escalation with the outside world.

    And with the hard-liners in control of all levers of power, there would be less infighting. And so the hard-liners would be in a better place to deliver on their promises than the Rouhani administration ever was.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The Rouhani administration is in power until early August.

    Do you expect the U.S. and Iran to sign a nuclear deal between now and then, so that Raisi can claim the benefits of sanctions relief, without having been the one to actually sign the deal with the U.S.?

  • Ali Vaez:

    That is in line with my sense.

    I think the supreme leader much prefers that Rouhani, who was the main advocate of the nuclear deal, finalize its restoration before he leaves office, so that he gets the blame for any of the shortcomings, and Raisi comes in with a clean slate and reap the economic benefits.

    And, again, because there will be consolidation of power in the hands of the hard-liners, it is possible that they will be open to negotiated — negotiating a follow-on agreement, which the Biden administration seeks, if it is framed as a more-for-more or a better-for-better kind of arrangement.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And let's go back to the election results. We don't know, again, exactly the turnout. But we believe it'll probably be the lowest turnout since the revolution in Iran. The opposition was not united.

    Some were calling for a boycott. Let me show you some videos that were posted online by women who say that the regime killed their sons. And they said, do not vote, and their hashtag was #notovoting.

    Did that call for a boycott help depress turnout? Was this about apathy or anger among the Iranian population?

  • Ali Vaez:

    Nick, I would say both.

    There's just so much political apathy and so much frustration in Iran. The Iranian people have been trying to bring about some viable reforms to the system. And the hard-liners have obstructed any reform in the past 25 years. And so a lot of people have lost hope.

    But in the past two, three days, the reformists and moderates have tried to mobilize their constituents to prevent a Raisi presidency. And I think that has slightly pushed up turnout from what was initially expected to be below 50 percent. But that's probably not sufficient for Mr. Hemmati to be able to bridge the gap.

    What he needs is not more mobilization at this stage. It's really a miracle.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    A miracle.

    Just in the last few seconds that we have, I wonder, given the consolidation of the hard-liners that you have described, how does that confront, that anger, that apathy against the hard-liners, among the population? Where does that leave Iran today and in the future?

  • Ali Vaez:

    I think, in the short run, it means more repression at home. But if the system fails to respond to these grievances and bring about real improvement to Iran's economic well-being, I think they're sitting on a ticking bomb.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Ali Vaez, International Crisis Group, thank you very much.

  • Ali Vaez:

    Great to be with you.

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