On Saturday morning, a little-known ex-cardiac surgeon and member of Iranian parliament named Masoud Pezeshkian was pronounced the ninth president of the Islamic Republic. Taking to X, the new president addressed the people of Iran directly with a message of unity. “Dear people of Iran,” he posted, “this is just the beginning of our partnership. The difficult path ahead will not be smooth except with your companionship, empathy, and trust. I extend my hand to you, and I swear on my honor that I will not leave you alone on this path. Don’t leave us alone.”

His first public statement as president-elect seemed to acknowledge Iranians’ unprecedented disengagement from politics. On June 28, the first round of voting saw record-low turnouts of less than 40 percent of eligible voters. The second round — with nearly 50 percent participating — delivered the presidency to Pezeshkian, who won roughly 16 million votes out of 30 million cast. 

The president-elect, who will take office in 30 days, is a relatively unknown lawmaker in Iran’s majlis (parliament). Before his first parliamentary election in 2008, he served as health minister in Mohammad Khatami’s reformist government between 2001 and 2005. After hard-line president Ebrahim Raisi was killed in a helicopter crash in mid-May, many better-known politicians who put themselves up for election — such as ex-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and former speaker of the house Ali Larijani — were disqualified for standing by the Guardian Council. Of the six candidates that were allowed to run, Pezeshkian was the big surprise, his participation considered a maverick move by the Islamic establishment to help mobilize voters. 

The Islamic Republic is dominated by the supreme leader and the power he wields over the judiciary, the military and the Revolutionary Guard. But the wider system is a curious mix of authoritarian and democratic rule, with members of parliament and the president voted for by the public. In spite of the perception that Iran’s clerical leader, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, rules the country with an iron grip, the democratic elements of the regime are dearly held. Being able to claim credibility and a semblance of democratic choice are important to the regime’s brand of staunchly anti-imperialist politics. Many of the congratulations that poured in from world leaders after the election praised Iran’s “commitment to democracy.”

In spite of the perception that Khamenei rules the country with an iron grip, the democratic elements of the regime are dearly held.

Pezeshkian has promised to form an inclusive government that looks beyond factions and represents the country’s ethnic minorities and the 60 percent of Iranians who did not vote. He has promised a cabinet of “National Unity or National Reconciliation” that will feature experts to deal with Iran’s multifarious problems. Accompanied on his campaign by former Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, the architect of 2015’s nuclear deal, the expectation is that Pezeshkian’s government will be filled with moderates and reformists who want to normalize relations with the West, including renewed negotiations for the nuclear agreement. It’s also noteworthy that he chose a woman as his campaign spokesperson, Hamideh Zarabadi.

Pezeshkian, 69, has never held any regime posts outside of his stint in Khatami’s cabinet. This low-profile no doubt worked in his favor with an Iranian populace disillusioned by the corruption of a political elite that grows ever-richer as the economy free falls and ordinary people suffer. Raisi, by contrast, oversaw the Astan Quds Razavi charitable foundation from 2016-2020, a black-box institution sometimes called the financial empire of the supreme leader, containing vast and varied economic activities rumored to have a turnover of billions of dollars not subject to independent oversight. When Raisi raised taxes on ordinary Iranians to pay down the deficit, he did not touch the foundation; indeed, it has never been taxed. 

Pezeshkian’s personal integrity has been another vote winner. After his wife and only son died in an accident in 1993, he never remarried and raised his remaining three children alone. That his adult children still live in Iran is an important point in a country where the sons and daughters of the ruling elite often live in the West and show off their glossy lifestyles on social media, which the populace finds distasteful and hypocritical. Then there is the fact that Pezeshkian is an ethnic Azeri, Iran’s largest and best-integrated ethnic minority, comprising 16 percent of Iran’s largely Persian population. Equal treatment for Iran’s ethnic minorities was a cornerstone of his campaign, including promises to include representatives from Baluchi and Kurdish populations in his cabinet. These communities suffered the worst suppression during the Woman, Life, Freedom protests of 2022, and it seems Pezeshkian has won their support. In the first round of voting, Pezeshkian came out clearly ahead of his opponents in the Kurdish province.

Pezeshkian’s record in parliament shows him to be a staunch supporter of the rights of ethnic minorities. In 2022, he showed some moral courage by questioning the authorities about the death of Mahsa Jina Amini, the Kurdish woman whose death in custody for “bad hijab” sparked months of unrest across the country and gave birth to the Woman, Life, Freedom movement. “We will respect the hijab law, but there should never be any intrusive or inhumane behaviour toward women,” Pezeshkian said after casting his vote in the first round of the election, leading some to hope that he will oversee a loosening of the dress code for women, ostensibly the subject of the 2022 protests. 

But it would be naïve to see the new president as willing to make radical changes that go against the Islamic system. Pezeshkian has always clearly stated his loyalty to the supreme leader, and the hijab laws are seen as a cornerstone of the revolutionary ideology that rules Iran, so it is unlikely that there will be any meaningful change in the law. He has also been clear about the extent of his powers: at a Tehran University meeting last month, responding to a question about students imprisoned on charges linked to 2022-23 unrest, Pezeshkian said, “political prisoners are not within my scope, and if I want to do something, I have no authority.” In TV interviews and debates, he has explicitly promised not to contest Khamenei’s policies. 

It would be naïve to see the new president as willing to make radical changes that go against the Islamic system.

This lack of real power to effect change, and his ultimate loyalty to the supreme leader, explain voter apathy. While Pezeshkian had the support of the reformists, human rights activists urged a boycott of the elections. For example, Narges Mohammadi, the jailed activist and 2023 Nobel Peace Prize recipient, denounced the election and called it a facade orchestrated by an oppressive regime. In a statement issued from Evin Prison, where she is held, Mohammadi said: “I will not participate in the illegal elections of the oppressive and illegitimate government. How can you, while holding a sword, gallows, weapons and prisons against the people with one hand, place a ballot box in front of the same people with the other hand and deceitfully and falsely call them to the polls?” Her fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureate, the exiled Shirin Ebadi, meanwhile, noted on Instagram, “the reformists and moderates entered the political arena to salvage the regime.” This sentiment extended to much of the young Woman, Life, Freedom movement, which generally did not use its vote, so disillusioned are they with previous reformist governments’ inability to change the system from the inside. Arguably, the economy and a foreign policy that ends Iran’s isolation from the world are more important to voters than the future of the hijab.

Pezeshkian knows this, and has promised a pragmatic foreign policy that seeks to normalize relations with the West while keeping Iran’s close relations with Russia and China intact. He has pledged to seek to ease sanctions and to address the flagging economy, beset by mismanagement, state corruption and U.S. sanctions. Under Raisi’s presidency, Iran’s currency lost half of its value, sinking to more than 600,000 rials per U.S. dollar. This worsened inflation, especially for food and consumer necessities while the government was unable to meaningfully boost salaries. Monthly wages for ordinary workers have remained below $200, impoverishing tens of millions of people. It is only in the realm of the economy that the president of Iran has full power; everything else, including foreign policy, the judiciary and military, are under the jurisdiction of Khamenei, leading many Iranians to surmise that Pezeshkian’s ability to meaningfully change Iran’s stance toward the West is severely restricted.

At best, Pezeshkian’s presidency may signal a change in tone toward the West and in some social freedoms in Iran, but the supreme leader’s office will have final say in the majority of military, intelligence and even economic appointments, making it unlikely that he will be able to form a government that is not ultimately loyal to Khamenei. Saeed Jalili, who lost to Pezeshkian in the second round of voting, heads up a hardline political block that will remain an influential actor and obstacle to reform. Pezeshkian may have won the presidency, but he will face a majlis tilted overwhelmingly toward the hardliners, and his road ahead is rocky. It remains to be seen if he will be able to make any meaningful change in the lives of ordinary Iranians. 

In the background is the looming question of who will succeed the supreme leader when the ailing Khamenei dies. The fact that Pezeshkian was even allowed to run for office indicates that the supreme leader’s office trusts him not to interfere with that process. Given that the real power in Iran rests elsewhere, Pezeshkian’s victory looks to many in Iran like superficial window dressing, the rise of another powerless moderate, a sad déjà vu of Khatami and Hassan Rouhani’s presidencies.

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