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Iran’s New President: Can He Implement Necessary Change?

09 Jul 2024
By Ian Dudgeon
Solidarity with the people of Iran. Source: Sima Ghaffarzadeh /

Dr Masoud Pezeshkian’s election as president aligns with Iran’s domestic and international priorities. His reformist stance, support from Supreme Leader Khamenei, and experience in politics and medicine make him a pivotal figure in addressing social unrest and international sanctions.

On 5 July, Dr Masoud Pezeshkian, a 69 year-old “reformist” member of parliament, was elected as Iran’s new president, replacing hard-line conservative Ebrahim Raisi, who was killed in a helicopter crash on 19 May. Pezeshkian will seek to project change to Iran’s image, domestically through the inclusion of some social liberalisation, and internationally through improved relations with the West, including progressing contentious nuclear agreement negotiations.

But the extent of actual change will continue to be dictated by the policy constraints imposed by the inner-core, conservative leadership headed by the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Making judgements about Iranian presidential (and other) elections is always a challenge. However, Pezeshkian’s selection as a presidential candidate and election as president fits with Iran’s urgent domestic and international priorities.

Priorities include reversing the high level of unrest among the youth in particular due to the crackdown on social freedoms, especially the brutal, at times lethal, enforcement of religious dress codes on women, and the lifting of foreign sanctions to reinstate normal trade and alleviate the wide-spread economic impact and social despair of hyper-inflation.

Under Raisi, Iran was seriously struggling with both priorities. There was a high level of domestic disapproval of the regime, and civil unrest generally, especially among younger Iranians. The situation was contained, but at high cost. Internationally, Western sanctions, especially, were near-crippling Iran’s economy. There was also significant concern about Iran’s nuclear weapon’s intentions, and its role in new Middle East tensions, especially regarding Israel.

While there is no evidence, that I’m aware of, that Raisi’s death was anything other than an accident, this presented a highly serendipitous opportunity to replace him with a new president suited to address the above priorities.

Of the six of some 80 potential Iranian presidential candidates authorised by the 12-member powerful Guardian Council to contest the presidency, Pezeshkian was the only reformist. The remaining five were conservative or ultra-conservative; in other words, alternate versions of Raisi. As such, Pezeshkian, at least on paper, was the preferred and logical choice for presidential successor.

One absolute selection criteria for the new president was that he must be trusted by the Supreme Leader. Pezeshkian’s known record suggests full loyalty to Khamenei, although he has recommended variations and softer tactics on issues to those of hard-line conservatives. This applied particularly to heavy-handed  government responses to politically-related protests. This aside, given Khamenei’s very strong influence over Guardian Council decision-making, Pezeshkian would not have been approved by them as a presidential candidate without Khamenei’s specific approval.

So who is Pezeshkian? He was born in 1954 in Iran’s northwestern province of West Azerbaijan of an Iranian Azerbaijani father and Iranian Kurdish mother. Although a strong nationalist, he has a knowledge of and is sensitive to Iran’s ethnic minorities, which comprise upwards of 50 percent of the country’s population. This background is an asset nationally, especially as some civil unrest is ethnically based. He also speaks several languages, including Farsi, Azerbaijani, Kurdish, Arabic, and English; again assets, nationally and internationally.

Pezeshkian is a widower; his wife, a gynecologist, was killed in a car accident in 1993. They had four children, three sons and a daughter. His youngest son was killed with his mother. Pezeshkian has not remarried.

Pezeshkian is by training a medical doctor, obtaining his basic degree in 1985, and subsequently specialising in general surgery at Tabriz University, where he was president of the university’s faculty of medical sciences during 1994-99. He later specialised in cardiac surgery at Iran University.

There are two other background factors relevant to his election as president. Pezeshkian is religious, but not hard-line, and is reportedly more flexible than many mullahs on how women wear their hijab. This could lower at least some civil unrest. He also has sound relations with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), having served with them in a medical capacity during the Iran/Iraq war (1980-88). This relationship is important given the IRGC’s high-level of influence  in national politics and security.

Pezeshkian’s medical profession led to his political career. He was appointed by Iran’s reformist president Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005) as deputy minister of Health and Medical Education during 1997-2001, then as minister during 2001-2005. He applied his technical expertise across his portfolios and served successfully in both. These appointments also exposed Pezeshkian directly to the importance of health and welfare services generally to Iran’s population.

Subsequently, Pezeshkian served from 2008 until now as an independent reformist member of Iran’s national parliament, representing the electoral district of Tabriz, Osku, and Azarshahr in East Azerbaijan. Within parliament, he served as first deputy speaker during 2016-2020, which coincided with the reformist presidency of Hassan Rouhani (2013-2021).

Pezeshkain has sought to contest the presidency twice before. The first time was in 2013 when he received Guardian Council approval, but subsequently withdrew his candidacy in favour of Rouhani. The second time was in 2021, but he did not receive Guardian Counsel approval. Raisi won that election.

Iran’s electoral process allows for the direct election of the president; voting is voluntary, with all adult citizens 18 years and over being eligible to vote. However, the elected president must receive 50 percent or more of the vote. If no candidate receives 50 percent in the first round, a run-off election is held between the top two vote-getters.

In this June’s election, two candidates withdrew before election day, and four went to the polls. Whether due to public apathy or deliberately not voting as a form of protest against the regime, only 40 percent or some 24.4 million of the approximate 61 million of those eligible voted, the lowest turnout ever. The top two candidates were Pezeshkian with 10.41 million votes, and Saeed Jalili, a hard-line conservative, with 9.47 million votes. The remaining two candidates received less than 4 million votes between them.

The run-off election was held on 5 July and some 29.8 million votes were cast. Pezeshkian won convincingly receiving 16.3 million, or 53.7 percent of the votes, with Jalili receiving 13.5 million or 44.3 percent of the votes. According to these statistics, nearly 6 million additional people turned out and cast their votes for Pezeshkian on 5 July compared to less than 1 million extra for Jalili. One interpretation of this outcome is the public’s determination to elect a reformist president, although total votes cast still did not reach 50 percent of those eligible.

It remains to be seen who Pezeshkian appoints to his cabinet, especially as foreign minister and minister of Home Affairs. Regarding the former, he is a close friend of Javid Zarif, foreign minister under Rohani, who established sound working relations with the West, especially the US, and helped facilitate Iran joining the nuclear agreement, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2016.  While Zarif may not be reappointed foreign minister, he could become a valued close adviser.

Pezeskhain ticks many of the boxes that Iran and foreign nations seek to progress changes of practice and policy to mutual benefit. This will be especially so if Donald Trump is elected the next US president. But change will have to be progressed carefully to ensure acceptance by Iran’s ruling elite.

Ian Dudgeon is a former AIIA ACT branch president.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.