Who are Masoud Pezeshkian and Saeed Jalili, Iran’s presidential contenders?

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Masoud Pezeshkian, the only reformist in Iran’s presidential election, will face ultraconservative Saeed Jalili in a runoff on Friday, following a vote marked by historically low turnout.

Pezeshkian, 69, secured 42.4 percent of the vote, while Jalili, a 58-year-old former nuclear negotiator, came second with 38.6 percent, according to figures announced by a spokesman for Iran’s election authority.

Conservative parliament speaker Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf followed with 13.8 percent of the vote, while the only other candidate, conservative cleric Mostafa Pourmohammadi, received less than one percent.

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“None of the candidates could secure an absolute majority,” the election authority spokesman said, noting that Pezeshkian and Jalili, who finished first and second, would compete in a runoff on July 5.

Just over 40 percent of the 61 million eligible voters participated in Friday’s first round – a record low turnout for the Islamic Republic.

Here are some details about the two remaining candidates:

Masoud Pezeshkian

Pezeshkian, Iran’s sole reformist candidate, has risen from relative obscurity to leading the first round of the presidential election.

Pezeshkian, 69, garnered over 10.4 million votes in a first round on Friday that saw him facing three conservative figures, all vying to replace the late president Ebrahim Raisi, who died in a helicopter crash last month. Jalili secured over 9.4 million votes.

Ahead of the elections, Iran’s main reformist coalition supported Pezeshkian, with former presidents Mohammad Khatami and moderate Hassan Rouhani endorsing his bid.

Masoud Pezeshkian, a member of parliament, speaks at a press conference after registering as a candidate for the presidential election at the Interior Ministry, in Tehran, Iran, June 1, 2024. (Via Reuters)
Masoud Pezeshkian, a member of parliament, speaks at a press conference after registering as a candidate for the presidential election at the Interior Ministry, in Tehran, Iran, June 1, 2024. (Via Reuters)

Pezeshkian’s presidential campaign comes amid heightened regional tensions over Israel-Hamas war in the Gaza Strip, disputes with the West over Iran’s nuclear program, and domestic discontent over economic hardship and curbs on political and social freedom.

The outspoken heart surgeon publicly criticized the Raisi government over the death in custody of Iranian Kurdish woman Mahsa Amini, who was arrested for allegedly violating the Islamic Republic’s strict dress code for women. In a social media post, Pezeshkian called for an investigation into Amini’s death following her death.

In recent campaigning, he has criticized the enforcement of mandatory hijab laws, which require women to cover their heads and necks in public since shortly after the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

“We oppose any violent and inhumane behavior towards anyone, notably our sisters and daughters, and we will not allow these actions to happen,” he said.

Born on September 29, 1954, in Mahabad, in the northwestern province of West Azerbaijan, Pezeshkian has represented Tabriz in Iran’s parliament since 2008, served as health minister in Khatami’s government, and supervised medical teams during the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988).

In 1993, Pezeshkian lost his wife and one of his children in a car accident. He never remarried and raised his remaining three children – two sons and a daughter – alone.

Campaigning for Pezeshkian was Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s former foreign minister who secured the landmark 2015 nuclear deal with world powers. That deal fell apart three years later.

Pezeshkian has called for reviving the accord – which aimed to curb Tehran’s nuclear activity in return for sanctions relief – to end Iran’s “isolation.”

“If we manage to lift the sanctions, people will have an easier life while the continuation of sanctions means making people’s lives miserable,” he said during one of his televised interviews.

If elected, Pezeshkian will implement state policy under Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who holds ultimate authority in Iran.

Saeed Jalili

Ultraconservative former nuclear negotiator Jalili, who will face Pezeshkian in the presidential runoff, is known for his staunch anti-Western stance.

Jalili, 58, aims to unify Iran’s fragmented conservative factions in the upcoming runoff.

Jalili, who secured over 9.4 million votes, is supported by a substantial base of hardline voters who embrace the slogan “no compromise, no surrender” to the West.

Former Iranian senior nuclear negotiator and candidate for the presidential election Saeed Jalili casts his ballot in a polling station, in Tehran, Iran, June 28, 2024. (Via AP)
Former Iranian senior nuclear negotiator and candidate for the presidential election Saeed Jalili casts his ballot in a polling station, in Tehran, Iran, June 28, 2024. (Via AP)

Born on September 6, 1965, in Mashhad, Jalili comes from a devout middle-class family. Known for his soft-spoken yet rigid, religious persona, he has held several senior roles throughout his career.

Currently, Jalili is one of Khamenei’s representatives in the Supreme National Security Council, Iran’s top security body.

Jalili served in the Iran-Iraq war, where he was injured by shrapnel, leading to the amputation of his right foot. From 2007 to 2013, he led negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program, maintaining an uncompromising stance.

Critics accused him of ideological rhetoric during negotiations with Western governments, rather than clearly articulating Iran’s position.

He has vehemently opposed the 2015 nuclear deal, arguing it violated Iran’s “red lines” by allowing inspections of nuclear sites.

Jalili holds a doctorate in political science from Emam Sadegh University in Tehran, an institution established to train the cadres of the Islamic Republic.

In the early 2000s, he was part of the supreme leader’s office, responsible for key strategic reports.

Under hardline president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Jalili served as deputy foreign minister for Europe and South America.

In the 2013 presidential race, Jalili finished third, securing only 11 percent of the vote. In 2021, he withdrew his candidacy in favor of Raisi, who went on to win.

Power in Iran ultimately lies with Khamenei, so the result will not herald any major policy shift on Iran’s nuclear program or its support for militias across the Middle East. But the president runs the government day-to-day and can influence the tone of Iran’s policy.

With agencies

Read more: Polls close in Iran after election to replace president killed in helicopter crash

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