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What you should know about Iranian President-elect Pezeshkian

What you should know about Iranian President-elect Pezeshkian
What you should know about Iranian President-elect Pezeshkian

Masoud Pezeshkian, Iran’s reformist president-elect, won a narrow victory over a hardline candidate in the Islamic Republic’s elections on Sunday. But given the long-term priorities of the clerics who are the ultimate source of power in Iran, Pezeshkian will only be able to push through limited changes in certain areas – and there is no guarantee that the reforms he successfully implements will last beyond his term.

Pezeshkian’s victory says a lot about the regime under Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the mood of ordinary Iranians. The mere fact that he can run – presidential candidates are chosen by a group of clerics called the Guardian Council – suggests that Khamenei and his allies, who control most of Iran’s government, understand that people are unhappy with the status quo, especially after the brutal crackdown on protests and the Woman, Life, Freedom movement in 2022.

Still, there is a strong anti-reform section of the Iranian electorate. This is reflected in the fact that Pezeshkian’s rival, former nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili, is a hardliner – and the margin between the two was quite close in the end. Although the result must be viewed with some skepticism given the frequent dishonesty of the Iranian leadership, the regime threw its resources behind Jalili and clearly wanted him to win. And the fact that almost half of the voters voted for Jalili shows a high level of polarization.

What complicates any attempt to draw conclusions from turnout is the fact that there was widespread non-voting, either because of a boycott organized by activists such as those in the Woman, Life, Freedom movement or simply because of voter disaffection. Yet of the nearly 50 percent of eligible voters who cast their ballots, the majority voted for someone who promised at least limited change, more transparency and a willingness to resist factionalism and try to improve people’s lives.

“One precedent we’ve seen is that reformers – real reformers – always win when they run,” Negar Mortazavi, a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy, told Vox. “In some ways it was a surprise that he was allowed to run. But I wasn’t surprised that he won – polls showed him ahead from the beginning. So that still shows that … the majority of voters believe in reform and are dissatisfied.”

Reforms are possible under Pezeshkian, but only to a limited extent

Although Iran has a new president, Supreme Leader Khamenei and the Guardian Council are the final decision-makers, especially on foreign policy issues. Pezeshkian will be able to make limited changes domestically, but will still have to operate within the framework of Iran’s theocratic system.

“The president has ambitions and he has made them clear, socially and economically and potentially in terms of Iran’s foreign relations,” said Sanam Vakil of the British think tank Chatham House. “But to be successful, the president will need to build consensus across the Iranian political spectrum, working with the conservative-dominated Iranian institutions. Without that consensus and without support from within, he will not have much room to maneuver at the moment.”

It is not clear whether Pezeshkian can build that consensus. His campaign had little institutional support, and although he has spoken out in favor of cross-party cooperation, there are no real signals of agreement from the conservatives. Pezeshkian may come from the reformist wing of parliament, but he is committed to the Islamic Republic and wants to work with and within the regime.

“He is really a border reformer, not a militant or ideological reformer,” said Ali Vaez, director of the International Crisis Group’s Iran program. “That’s why he has stayed in the system for so long.”

Still, there are some areas where Pezeshkian can effect change—most notably socially, such as relaxing hijab laws that sparked massive, violent protests in 2022. The months of protests that followed were a response to Mahsa Amini’s death, but they also reflected people’s anger over repressive conditions under Peshkezian’s hardline predecessor, cleric Ebrahim Raisi, who died in a helicopter crash in May. After Amini’s death, anger erupted over ethnic inequality, restrictions on women’s behavior, and ultimately miserable economic conditions caused by a combination of harsh sanctions, bureaucratic mismanagement, and government corruption.

During the election campaign, Pezeshkian condemned Amini’s death in custody and the subsequent crackdown on the protest movement, which left many dead and thousands in prison. Relaxing hijab rules could “lead to an improvement in enforcement in terms of the level of violence and harassment,” Mortazavi said.

This has a precedent; when politicians from the reformist faction (faction, not party – there are no political parties in Iran) come to office, such laws are less strictly enforced. “This is not something we are just guessing or predicting, we have seen this before under (Hassan) Rouhani,” Mortazavi said. Rouhani was the reformist president who was involved in the 2015 negotiations on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the Iran nuclear deal.

Pezeshkian could also do more to advocate for ethnic minorities, such as Kurds, Arabs, Baluchis and Azerbaijanis. Pezeshkian himself is Kurdish and Azerbaijani, and comes from Azerbaijan, which has a large minority population and is one of the provinces that has long suffered from underinvestment and harsh crackdowns on protests.

The economy – a serious issue for voters of almost all backgrounds and political persuasions – could also motivate Pezeshkian to help improve people’s living conditions. But his influence will be limited because Iran’s economic misery is the result of three intertwined factors: severe sanctions imposed by the United States, enormous corruption and profiteering from these sanctions, especially in parts of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and mismanagement.

Like Rohani, Pezeshkian could try to “negotiate further mini-deals with Washington to allow further easing of sanctions or increased oil sales,” Vakil said.

Pezeshkian could try to reduce inflation, which currently stands at around 50 percent. In addition, he could take steps to remove Iran from the blacklist of the Financial Action Task Force, an international anti-money laundering organization. This would facilitate trade with China in particular.

“These minimal differences are important to people,” Vaez said, because they “give them the opportunity to live a relatively normal life.”

In Iran, some things are non-negotiable – that’s why Pezeshkian simply cannot do many things.

During the election campaign, Pezeshkian made it quite clear what he can and cannot achieve. For example, he has very little influence on the judiciary and therefore can probably do little to improve the conditions of political prisoners.

And although Pezeshkian has also expressed a desire to be more open, particularly to the West, “he is not proposing a grand deal with the US or the West,” Vakil said. There are also obstacles to such an engagement – above all the US’s unwillingness to engage in it.

While easing sanctions through new nuclear commitments would benefit the Iranian economy, these efforts would “face very strong resistance from the so-called ‘sanctions traders’ – that is, Iranian politicians and their confidants who profit, for example, from the sale of goods on the black market,” Vaez said.

Pezeshkian, whose clean record is likely part of his appeal to voters fed up with political misconduct, has also floated the idea of ​​fighting corruption, but that too is likely to have limited reach.

“A really deep and meaningful anti-corruption campaign would make sense, but that will be impossible,” Vakil said. Instead, Pezeshkian’s reform will likely only include more transparency in contracts and decision-making processes.

Little is expected to change in terms of regional dynamics; he has encouraged continued dialogue with Saudi Arabia after the former enemies ease tensions in 2023. And some reports suggest that Pezeshkian and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah have assured each other of their continued support. “The Islamic Republic has always supported the resistance of the people of the region against the illegitimate Zionist regime,” Pezeshkian reportedly wrote to Nasrallah.

Pezeshkian has little control over the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Even if he hoped to significantly change the dynamics in the region, this would be impossible.

Ultimately, the new president will not radically change Iran in the near future. Pezeshkian will essentially change little in the long term, even if he could improve the lives of ordinary Iranians in the short term.

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