What does reformist Masoud Pezeshkian’s election win mean for Iran’s future?  

ATHENS, Greece: Iranian reformer Masoud Pezeshkian’s victory over radical rival Saeed Jalili in the second round of the country’s presidential election on Saturday offers a glimmer of hope to Iranians desperate for change, political observers said.

While many Iranians are too disillusioned with their government to feel optimistic, some say Pezeshkian’s victory indicates the possibility of reform in the face of economic turmoil, corruption and a crackdown on the opposition.

The first round of elections began on June 28, less than a month after President Ebrahim Raisi died in a helicopter crash.


Iran’s newly elected President Masoud Pezeshkian gestures during a visit to the mausoleum of the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, in Tehran, July 6, 2024. (AFP)

However, no candidate won more than 50 percent of the vote in the election, and turnout was the lowest since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Videos circulating on social media, including X, showed near-empty polling stations across the country.

“How can you, while holding a sword, gallows, guns and prisons against the people with one hand, and with the other hand put a ballot box in front of the same people and deceitfully and falsely call on them to vote?” Narges Mohammadi, an imprisoned Iranian human rights activist and Nobel laureate, said in a statement from Evin prison.


ORGANIC

  • Name: Masoud Pezeshkian
  • Year of birth: 1954
  • Birth place: Mahabad, Iran
  • Occupation: Heart surgery

The unimpressive turnout is part of a trend that began four years ago, with the 2020 parliamentary elections, said Ali Vaez, director of the Iran Project at the International Crisis Group (ICG).

“This clearly shows that the majority of Iranians have given up on voting as a real tool for change,” he told Arab News.

“The Jalili-Pezeshkian runoff was a contest between two opposing ends of the system’s acceptable spectrum: Jalili’s uncompromising ideological approach and Pezeshkian’s moderate, liberal stance have generated intense polarization, seemingly boosting voter turnout. Jalili embodies a confrontational foreign policy and restrictive social policies, while Pezeshkian advocates moderate reforms and diplomatic engagement.”


Iranian presidential candidate Saeed Jalili, a hardline former nuclear negotiator, casts his vote in the second round of the presidential election at a polling station in Qarchak, near Tehran, July 5, 2024. (AP)

Political analysts expressed cautious optimism following Pezeshkian’s victory.

“Pezeshkian won an election with only 50 percent of voters participating. He lacks the mandate enjoyed by previous reform-minded Iranian presidents. But the boycott allowed him to run,” Esfandyar Batmanghelidj, founder and CEO of British think tank Bourse & Bazaar Foundation, said Saturday at X.


Iranian expatriates in Kuwait voted at the Gulf Arab country’s embassy in the closely watched presidential election. (AFP)

“Both voters and non-voters had a hand in this extraordinary result. Turnout was high enough to propel Pezeshkian into office, but low enough to deny (the Iranian regime’s) legitimacy and maintain political pressure for more significant change.”

Some Iranians said that while they had no great expectations for Pezeshkian’s rule, their decision to vote for him was motivated by a desire for change, even if it was small.


A woman casts her vote in the presidential election at a polling station in the St. Saleh mausoleum in northern Tehran, July 5, 2024. (AP)

“The reason for my vote is not that I have any particular hopes for his government, no. I voted because I believe that the explosive need for change in society is now so strong and ready to explode that even if a small opportunity is provided, society itself … will change many things for the better,” Iranian journalist and Sadra Mohaqeq, who voted for Pezeshkian, said on Friday.

Pezeshkian, a heart surgeon whose political career includes a stint as Iran’s health minister, will be the first reformer to take office as Iran’s president since 2005. His promises include efforts to improve relations with the West and easing Iran’s mandatory headscarf law.

Of Azeri and Kurdish descent, he also supports minority rights in Iran. Minority groups have often borne the brunt of state-sanctioned violence following the 2022-2023 protests sparked by the death in police custody of Mahsa (Jina) Amini.


Supporters hold portraits of newly elected Iranian President Masoud Pezeshkian visiting the mausoleum of the founder of the Islamic Republic Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in Tehran, July 6, 2024. (AFP)

After Amini’s death, Pezeshkian stated that “in the Islamic Republic it is unacceptable to arrest a girl for her hijab and then hand her body over to her family.”

But just days later, amid nationwide protests and brutal government crackdowns, he warned protesters against “insulting the supreme leader.” Even to the most optimistic Iran watchers, it’s clear that Pezeshkian still answers to the head of state.

“Despite being a reformer, Pezeshkian is loyal to Iran’s supreme leader, and reformers in Iran generally are unable to implement reforms that challenge the vision, goals and values ​​of the Islamic revolution. Ultimate power does not rest with President-elect Pezeshkian but with (Supreme Leader Ali) Khamenei,” Mohammed Albasha, senior Middle East analyst at the US-based Navanti Group, told Arab News.


Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei votes in the presidential election in Tehran, July 5, 2024. (Office of the Supreme Leader of Iran/WANA/REUTERS Media)

Moreover, even if Pezeshkian proves willing to push hard for reform, the Iranian political environment is still dominated by radical figures.

Vaez said: “Given Pezeshkian’s relatively low vote share, the continued conservative dominance of other state institutions and the limitations of presidential power, Pezeshkian will face an uphill battle to secure greater social and cultural rights at home and to pursue diplomatic engagement abroad, something he has emphasized in debates and on the campaign trail.”

Pezeshkian expressed support for internal reforms and improving international relations, but at the same time unequivocally supported the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

He condemned the previous Trump administration’s decision to designate the IRGC as a terrorist organization and wore an IRGC uniform during public meetings.

This section contains important reference points placed in (opinion field)

It is unclear how Pezeshkian will reconcile his desire to maintain ties with the West with his views, especially given that the IRGC has been designated a terrorist organization by the U.S., Sweden and Canada.

Growing pressure to improve relations with the West could also draw the ire of the Islamic Republic’s strongest military and economic allies, such as China and Russia.

However, Pezeshkian may not have much choice in the matter, regardless of his own aspirations.

“The president in Tehran is primarily responsible for implementing the day-to-day agenda, not setting it. Nuclear policy, regional alliances and relations with the West are dictated by the supreme leader and the Revolutionary Guard,” said Albasha of Navanti Group.


A November 19, 2023 photo shows Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei with Hossein Salami (center), commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, commander of the corps’ aerospace division (right) during a visit to the IRGC’s Aerospace Achievements Exhibition in Tehran. (KHAMENEI.IR/ AFP)

Although he is not the head of state, Pezeshkian will undoubtedly have some influence on Iran’s domestic and foreign policy, as well as its economic policy.

The rule of Iran’s last reformist president, Mohammad Khatami, was marked by some liberalization, including freedom of speech, a free market economy and improved diplomatic relations with other countries.

Only time will tell what changes Pezeshkian will be willing and able to make.

Pezeshkian’s election victory is not a turning point, ICG’s Vaez said, but “another twist in the complex political dynamics of a system that remains divided between those who want to moderate the 1979 revolution and those who want it to remain permanent.”

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