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What does the electoral victory of the reformist Masoud Pezeshkian mean for the future of Iran?

ATHENS, Greece: Iran’s reformist Masoud Pezeshkian’s victory over his hardline rival Saeed Jalili in the country’s presidential runoff 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 believe Pezeshkian’s win points to 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 died in a helicopter crash.


New Iranian President Masoud Pezeshkian gestures during a visit to the shrine of Islamic Republic founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in Tehran on 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 Islamic Revolution in 1979. Videos circulating on social media platforms, including X, showed precincts almost empty polling throughout the country.

“How can you, while holding a sword, gallows, guns and prison against the people with one hand, place a ballot box before the same people with the other hand and call them to vote fraudulently and falsely?” Narges Mohammadi, the 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
  • Occupation: Cardiologist surgeon

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

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

“The showdown between Jalili and Pezeshkian in the second round was a showdown between two opposite ends of the spectrum acceptable to the system: Jalili’s tough, ideological approach and Pezeshkian’s moderate and liberal position created intense polarization, apparently leading to a higher vote. Jalili embodies confrontational foreign policy and restrictive social policies, while Pezeshkian advocates moderate reforms and diplomatic engagement.”

Iranian presidential candidate Saeed Jalili, a hard-line former nuclear negotiator, casts his presidential ballot 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 in which only 50% of voters showed up to vote. He lacks the tenure enjoyed by Iran’s previous reform-oriented presidents. 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 the closely watched presidential election. (AFP)

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

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

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

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

Pezeshkian, a heart surgeon whose political career includes a term as Iran’s health minister, will be the first reformist to take over as president in Iran since 2005. His promises include efforts to improve relations with the West and a relaxation of the mandatory headscarf Iran. law.

With both Azeri and Kurdish roots, he also supports minority rights in Iran. Minority groups often bore 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 Iran’s new president Masoud Pezeshkian visiting the shrine of Islamic Republic founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini 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, just days later, amid nationwide protests and brutal government crackdowns, he warned protesters against “insulating the supreme leader”. Even to the most optimistic of Iran watchers, it is clear that Pezeshkian still answers to the country’s head of state.

“Despite being a reformist, Pezeshkian is loyal to the Supreme Leader of Iran, and reformists in Iran are generally not able to pursue reforms that challenge the vision, goals and values ​​of the Islamic Revolution. Supreme authority does not depend on elected President Pezeshkian, but on (Supreme Leader Ali) Khamenei,” Mohammed Albasha, senior Middle East analyst for the 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 the Supreme Leader of Iran/WANA/Handout via REUTERS)

Furthermore, even if Pezeshkian proves willing to push hard for reforms, Iran’s political environment is still dominated by hardliners.

Vaez said: “Given Pezeshkian’s relatively low votes, the continued conservative dominance of other state institutions and the limits of presidential authority, Pezeshkian will face an uphill battle in securing greater social and cultural rights in the country and diplomatic engagement abroad which he emphasized in the debates. and on the campaign trail.”

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

He condemned the former Trump administration’s decision to label the IRGC a terrorist organization and wore the IRGC uniform in public gatherings.

This section contains relevant reference points placed in (Opinion field)

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

An increased push to improve ties with the West may also draw the ire of the Islamic Republic’s most powerful military and economic allies, such as China and Russia.

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

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

This Nov. 19, 2023 file photo 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, ( R) during a visit to the IRGC aerospace achievement exhibition in Tehran. (File KHAMENEI.IR/ AFP)

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

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

Only time will tell how many changes Pezeshkian wants or can bring.

Pezeshkian’s election win 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 subside and those who want it to this should remain permanent”.

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