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

ATHENS, Greece: Iranian reformist Masoud Pezeshkian’s victory over his hardline rival Saeed Jalili in Saturday’s presidential runoff election offers Iranians yearning for change a glimmer of hope, political observers say.

While many Iranians are too disillusioned with their government to be optimistic, some believe Pezeshkian’s victory signals the possibility of reform at a time of economic crisis, corruption and a crackdown on dissent.

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


Newly elected Iranian President Masoud Pezeshkian gestures during a visit to the shrine of the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, in Tehran, July 6, 2024. (AFP)

However, the election failed to generate more than 50 percent of the vote for any candidate, with the lowest turnout since the 1979 Islamic Revolution elections. Videos circulating on social media platforms, including X, showed nearly empty polling stations across the country.

“How can you, while holding a sword, a gallows, guns and prisons against the people with one hand, put a ballot box in front of the same people with the other hand and call them to the polls with deceit and falsehood?” Narges Mohammadi, the jailed Iranian human rights activist and Nobel laureate, said in a statement from Evin Prison.


BIO

  • First name: Massoud Pezeshkian
  • Year of birth: 1954
  • City of Birth: Mahabad, Iran
  • Occupation: Heart surgeon

According to Ali Vaez, director of the Iran project at the International Crisis Group (ICG), the low voter turnout is part of a trend that began four years ago with the 2020 parliamentary elections.

“This clearly shows that the majority of the Iranian people have renounced the ballot box as a valid means for change,” he told Arab News.

“The head-to-head race between Jalili and Pezeshkian in the second round was a contest between two opposite ends of the spectrum acceptable to the system: Jalili’s hard-line ideological approach and Pezeshkian’s moderate, liberal stance created intense polarization, seemingly resulting in higher 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 former hard-line nuclear negotiator, casts his vote in the presidential runoff election at a polling station in Qarchak, near Tehran, July 5, 2024. (AP)

Political analysts expressed cautious optimism following Pezeshkian’s victory.

“Pezeshkian prevailed in an election where only 50 percent of voters turned out. He does not have the mandate that previous reformist Iranian presidents enjoyed. But the boycott is what made his candidacy possible,” Esfandyar Batmanghelidj, founder and CEO of the UK-based think tank Bourse & Bazaar Foundation, told X on Saturday.


Iranian expatriates in Kuwait cast their votes at the Gulf country’s embassy in a widely watched presidential election. (AFP)

“Both voters and non-voters had an impact on this extraordinary outcome. Turnout was high enough to propel Pezeshkian into office, but low enough to deny the legitimacy (of the Iranian regime) and maintain political pressure for more meaningful change.”

Some Iranians said that while they did not have high expectations for Pezeshkian’s government, their decision to vote for him was motivated by a desire for change, however small.


A woman casts her vote in the presidential election at a polling station near the shrine of St. Saleh in northern Tehran on 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 desire for change in society is now so strong and ready to explode that even if given a small opportunity, society itself… will change many things for the better,” Iranian journalist and Pezeshkian’s voter Sadra Mohaqeq said on Friday.

Pezeshkian, a heart surgeon whose political career includes a stint as Iran’s health minister, will be the first reformist to take office in Iran since 2005. His promises include efforts to improve relations with the West and a relaxation of Iran’s law on compulsory veiling.

With both Azeri and Kurdish roots, she also advocates for minority rights in Iran. Minority groups have often borne the brunt of state-sanctioned violence following the 2022-2023 protests sparked by the death of Mahsa (Jina) Amini in police custody.


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

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

Yet just days later, amid nationwide protests and a brutal government crackdown, he warned demonstrators “not to insult the supreme leader.” Even for the most optimistic Iran watchers, it is clear that Pezeshkian still answers to the country’s head of state.

“Despite being a reformist, Pezeshkian is loyal to Iran’s supreme leader, and reformists in Iran generally cannot pursue reforms that challenge the vision, goals and values ​​of the Islamic Revolution. The ultimate authority does not reside 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 during the presidential election in Tehran, July 5, 2024. (Iran’s Supreme Leader’s Office/WANA/Handout via REUTERS)

Moreover, even if Pezeshkian were willing to push hard for reforms, Iran’s political environment would still be dominated by hardliners.

Vaez said: “Given Pezeshkian’s relatively low ratings, the continued conservative dominance of other state institutions, and the limits of presidential authority, Pezeshkian will face an uphill battle to secure the greater social and cultural rights at home and the diplomatic engagement abroad that he has emphasized in debates and during the election campaign.”

While Pezeshkian expressed support for domestic reforms and improving international relations, he also expressed his unequivocal support for the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

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

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It is unclear how Pezeshkian will reconcile a desire for ties with the West with his views, especially given that the IRGC has been designated a terrorist group by the United States, Sweden and Canada.

A growing push for better relations with the West could also raise 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 aspirations.

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


This photo published on November 19, 2023 shows Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei with Hossein Salami (center), head of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, head of the corps’ aerospace division, (right) during a visit to the exhibition on the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ aerospace achievements in Tehran. (Brochure 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 economic policy.

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

Only time will tell how many changes Pezeshkian will be willing or able to make.

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

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