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What does the election of a reformist as president mean for Iran?

Reformist candidate for the Iran's presidential election Masoud Pezeshkian clenches his fist after casting his vote at a polling station in Iran on July 5. Associated Press

Even as Americans are inundated by news about the seemingly never-ending contest between Joe Biden and Donald Trump, several other elections occurred last week.

In the United Kingdom, the Labour Party beat the Tories and captured the reins of government after a 14-year stretch as the opposition. In France, President Emmanuel Macron was given a slight reprieve after his party and a coalition of leftists teamed up to prevent Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally from controlling the French National Assembly.

But it was in Iran, a country not associated with free and fair democratic procedures, where the most interesting election took place by delivering the most surprising result. A little known reformist lawmaker, Masoud Pezeshkian, defeated a pillar of the conservative Iranian political establishment by a whopping 3 million votes. What many assumed would be another highly controlled election in which the conservative candidate would sail to victory instead turned out to be a blunt rejection of the system, writ large. Confronted with a choice between Saeed Jalili, an ultra-conservative hardliner known for his theological diatribes, or a lawmaker campaigning on loosening social restrictions and exploring an opening to the West, more than 16 million Iranian voters chose the latter.

Not much is known about Pezeshkian or his policies. A heart surgeon, a health minister under former reformist President Mohammad Khatami and a lawmaker for nearly 20 years, Pezeshkian pursued the office facing steep odds. Indeed, he has firsthand knowledge about how difficult it is to break into Iran’s national political scene; in 2021, he was disqualified from running for president by the guardian council, an unelected panel of jurists, clerics and officials appointed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to ensure candidates are firm believers in the Islamic Republic. That presidential contest was a stage-managed affair, with the field cleared for Ebrahim Raisi, Khamenei’s loyal protege, to assume the presidency.

However, Raisi’s death in a helicopter crash in May meant that Iran had to organize elections in short order. Many candidates were barred from running this time as well, but Pezeshkian was allowed to enter the contest. It’s likely Khamenei wanted more Iranians to turn out to the polls after dismal participation rates during the last few elections. During the 2024 parliamentary election earlier this year, only 41% of Iranians cast ballots, a pathetic figure that caused the supreme leader’s office significant distress. Allowing a reformist candidate into the race would, presumably, compel more Iranians — particularly in the cities and among the young — to engage. If that was the purpose, it worked to a degree — about 50% of eligible Iranians participated.

Pezeshkian was also a safe choice. Although he ran as a moderate who wants to curtail the morality police, the good doctor is hardly a reformist revolutionary. In fact, Pezeshkian is a product of the system and has been an active participant in it since the mid-1990s, when he was first appointed deputy foreign minister under the Khatami administration. Whereas his old boss, Khatami, relished shaking up the Islamic Republic’s political system in the hope of turning it more democratic (Khatami was stymied by Khamenei and the security services), Pezeshkian is more cautious and seems to understand that an Iranian leader isn’t going to get very far if he isn’t mind-numbingly patient. He also needs to play the part and reaffirm his loyalty to the supreme leader and the Islamic Republic as a whole, something Pezeshkian did constantly during his short presidential campaign.

Even so, the longtime lawmaker said all the right things on the trail. He was emphatic, particularly during the presidential debates, that it was absolutely unacceptable for police officers to beat women for wearing their clothing a certain way. He blasted the Raisi administration (without explicitly naming it) as an incompetent bunch who couldn’t negotiate their way out of a paper bag. He blasted his opponent, Jalili, for being wholly unqualified to manage anything, let alone a country whose economy has been hemmed in by U.S. sanctions, whose currency is depreciating and where inflation hovers around 40%. And he scoffed at Jalili for making economic promises he didn’t have the experience to keep.

Pezeshkian had a major difference of opinion on foreign affairs as well. Unlike Jalili, a former nuclear negotiator who stonewalled diplomacy during Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency, Pezeshkian argued that the only way Iran was going to turn its economy around was by reopening nuclear talks with the United States in order to get Washington’s sanctions regime lifted. It’s no surprise that Pezeshkian’s most vocal supporter was Mohammad Javad Zarif, a onetime Iranian foreign minister who was instrumental in getting the Iranian nuclear deal across the finish line back in 2015.

Nuclear talks with the United States have been largely dormant for the last two years, and whether they will resume is anybody’s guess. For one thing, the Biden administration has bigger fish to fry right now, including sustaining Ukraine’s war effort against Russia, trying to finalize a cease-fire agreement between Israel and Hamas and preventing another explosion of violence in the Middle East along the Israel-Lebanon border. Second, Pezeshkian’s hands are still tied; it’s Khamenei’s office, not the presidency, that will determine Iran’s nuclear policy. Having been burned by Washington during Donald Trump’s administration, Khamenei will likely wait until the 2024 U.S. election is over before making any major moves. After all, why negotiate something with an administration that could possibly be out by January?

Iran could be in for an interesting few years.

Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

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