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

ATHENS, Greece: Political observers say the victory of Iran’s reformist Masoud Pezeskiyan over his hardline rival Saeed Jalili in the second round of the national presidential election on Saturday gives hope to Iranians desperate for change.

While many Iranians are too disillusioned with his government to feel optimistic, some believe Pezeshkian’s victory signals the possibility of reform amid economic turmoil, corruption and a crackdown on dissent.

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


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

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

“How can it be that, while with one hand he holds swords, gallows, guns and prisons against the people, with the other hand he places a ballot box in front of the same people and fraudulently and falsely calls them to the polls?” Narges Mohammadi, the imprisoned Iranian human rights activist and Nobel laureate, said in a statement from Evin prison.


BIO

  • Name: Masoud Pezeshkian
  • Year of birth: 1954
  • Hometown: Mahabad, Iran
  • His job: Heart surgeon

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

“This clearly shows that the majority of the Iranian people have given up on the ballot box as a viable means of change,” he told Arab News.

“The head-to-head fight between Dzalili and Pezeskian in the second round was a contest between two opposite ends of the spectrum acceptable to the system: Dzalili’s hard-line, ideological approach and Pezeskian’s moderate, liberal stance created intense polarization, which ostensibly resulted in higher voter turnout. Jalili embodies confrontational foreign policy and restrictive social policy, while Pezeskyan advocates moderate reforms and diplomatic engagement.”


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

Political analysts voiced cautious optimism following Pezeskjan’s victory.

“Pezeskjan won an election where only 50 percent of the voters went to the polls. It lacks the mandate enjoyed by Iran’s previous reformist presidents. But boycotting made his candidacy possible,” Esfandyar Batmanghelidj, founder and chief executive of the British-based think tank Bourse & Bazaar Foundation, told X on Saturday.


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

“Both voters and non-voters had an impact on this remarkable result. The turnout was high enough to get Pezeshkian into office, but low enough to deny (the Iranian regime) legitimacy and sustain political pressure for major change.”

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


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

“I didn’t vote because I have special hopes for your government, no. I voted because I believe that society’s explosive desire for change is now so strong and ready to erupt that even if there was a small opportunity, society itself… would change many things for the better,” Iranian journalist and Sadra Mohaqeq, who called Pezeshkian voted. , he said on Friday.

Pezeshkian, a heart surgeon whose political career includes serving as Iran’s health minister, is the first reformist to serve as Iran’s president since 2005. Her promises include efforts to improve relations with the West and easing Iran’s mandatory headscarves. law.

He also supports the rights of Iranian minorities with Azeri and Kurdish roots. In the wake of the 2022–2023 protests sparked by the death in police custody of Mahsa (Jina) Amini, minority groups often bore the brunt of state-sanctioned violence.


Supporters hold portraits of Iran’s newly elected president, Masoud Pezeskian, who will visit the shrine of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, in Tehran on 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 over her body to her family.”

However, a few days later, amid nationwide protests and a brutal crackdown by the government, he warned protesters against “insulting the supreme leader.” It is clear even to the most optimistic Iran watchers that Pezeskyan still answers to the country’s head of state.

“Even though Pezeshkian is a reformist, he is loyal to Iran’s Supreme Leader, and Iranian reformers are generally not allowed to implement reforms that challenge the vision, goals, and values ​​of the Islamic Revolution. The ultimate power does not belong to President-elect Pezeshkian, but to (Supreme Leader Ali) Khamenei,” Mohammed Albasha, senior Middle East analyst at US-based Navanti Group, told Arab News.


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

Moreover, even if Pezeshkian is willing to push hard for reforms, the Iranian political landscape remains dominated by hardliners.

Vaez said: “Given Pezeshkian’s relatively low poll numbers, conservative dominance of other state institutions, and limits on presidential power, Pezeshkian faces an uphill battle to secure greater social and cultural rights at home and the diplomatic engagement he emphasizes in the debates abroad. and on the campaign trail.”

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

He condemned the former Trump administration’s decision to designate the IRGC as a terrorist organization and wore IRGC uniforms to public meetings.

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It is unclear how Pezeshkian will reconcile his desire for relations with the West, especially given that the United States, Sweden and Canada have designated the IRGC as a terrorist group.

Increasing efforts 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, Pezeskian may not have much choice in the matter, regardless of his own aspirations.

“The president in Tehran is primarily responsible for implementing the 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 the Navanti Group.


In this Nov. 19, 2023 photo, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is seen with Hossein Salami (center), head of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, head of the corps’ aerospace division (R). visit to the IRGC Tehran Aerospace Exhibition. (KHAMENEI.IR leaflet/ AFP)

Although not the head of state, Pezeskyan will undoubtedly have influence over Iran’s domestic and foreign policy as well as its economic policy.

The government 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 how much change Pezeshkian is willing or able to achieve.

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

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