What to expect from new president Masoud Pezeshkian

Iran’s President-elect, Masoud Pezeshkian, ran as the frontrunner and beat all expectations to win against hard-line rival Saeed Jalili.

Mr Pezeshkian is notable for being “a reformer”. But not the liberal, democracy-loving kind of reformer, in the general sense.

In Iran, the “reformists” are an ideological faction of the ruling elite of the Islamic Republic.

They are Islamists, like their conservative opponents, but believe that a more moderate version of the regime’s ideology might better serve both the ruling clerics and Iranian society.

Reformists led the government from 1997 to 2005 and were part of the de facto coalition when Hassan Rouhani, a conservative turned centrist, served as president from 2013 to 2021.

They often call for a more free and democratic society.

But in the 2024 election, unlike the previous reformist administration in the late 1990s, promises of a more liberal and democratic society were not part of their campaign.

Since the 1990s, Iran has experienced waves of dissent and repression. Even reformists have faced severe political repression, with many high-ranking figures spend time in prison over the past two decades.

Despite being members of this body, it is widely acknowledged that they have no influence over important centers of power, such as the Office of the Supreme Leader, the Guardian Council, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and the Supreme National Security Council.

When hard-line former president Ebrahim Raisi died in a helicopter crash in May and Mr Pezeshkian prepared for his presidential campaign, he adopted a strategy very similar to Hassan Rouhani’s in 2013: focusing on the economic hardship the country had faced for years due to Western sanctions – and blaming his conservative opponents for causing it with their “extreme” anti-Western stance.

In his campaign, Mr. Pezeshkian recruited Mohammad Javad Zarif, the country’s former foreign minister, who helped launch the attack. nuclear deal in 2015. Although Mr. Zarif is not a reformist, he campaigned heavily for Mr. Pezeshkian.

In his manifesto, Mr Pezeshkian declared that his foreign policy would be “neither anti-Western nor anti-Eastern”. He criticised former President Raisi’s policy of moving the country closer to Russia and China and stressed that the only way to resolve the economic crisis was through negotiations with the West to end the nuclear standoff and ease sanctions.

However, during the campaign, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, criticized these ideas. Khamenei called those who believe in achieving prosperity through friendlier relations with the United States “delusional,” – pointing to the fact that it is the United States, not Iran, that is has withdrawn from the nuclear deal.

According to Iran’s constitution, Mr. Khamenei is the main decision-maker; an 85-year-old Shia cleric who became a revolutionary in 1979 and climbed the ladder of power to become head of state in 1989. He is known for his ideological hostility toward Israel and the United States, his deep distrust of the West, and over the past two decades his active advocacy of a doctrine called “turning to the East,” which means ending the old policy of non-alignment and leaning toward China and Russia on the international stage.

One of the most important aspects of Iran’s policy in the region is what the Quds Force (the IRGC’s external arm) does. The president has no direct control over them, and only the Supreme Leader can decide what they do.

Mr Khamenei has repeatedly stated – including just three days before the first round of this election – that what the Quds Force does is essential to the country’s security doctrine.

So when Mr Pezeshkian talks about a different foreign policy with a more Western-friendly approach, the chances of changing Iran’s activities in countries like Lebanon, Syria and Yemen are slim.

However, the president is Iran’s top diplomat and the foreign ministry can still help shape and implement policy.

They have the opportunity to push their vision through secret political lobbying, as happened in 2015 when then-moderate President Hassan Rouhani persuaded hardliners, including Khamenei himself, to accept the deal.

Moreover, the regime can significantly influence public discourse and push policies that may not be entirely in line with Mr Khamenei’s positions. Such nuances are the reformers’ only hope of delivering on their promises and tearing down what Mr Pezeshkian calls “the walls that hardliners have built around the country.”


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