July 8, 2024

IntelBrief: Iranian Voters Rally to Elect a Reformist as President

AP Photo/Vahid Salemi

Bottom Line Up Front

  • Voters clamoring for change gave reformist candidate Masoud Pezeshkian an upset victory in the July 5 runoff of a special presidential election.
  • Additional reformist voters rallied in the runoff to the candidate offering modest change and blocked the accession of a hardliner vowing to preserve the status quo.
  • Iranians will evaluate Pezeshkian’s presidency based on his ability to relax the enforcement of a public dress code for women and to loosen restrictions on the use of social media.
  • The election sets the stage for intensified engagement with the United States and further easing of tensions with the Gulf states, but will not likely cause an Iranian rift with Russia or China.

Reformist voters, many of whom boycotted the June 28 special presidential election as unlikely to bring change, rallied in the July 5 runoff round to power the 69-year-old reformist candidate Masoud Pezeshkian to an upset victory. The elections were held to replace the late Ibrahim Raisi as President after his death in a May 19 helicopter crash. In the runoff, Pezeshkian, a heart surgeon and former parliamentarian and Health Minister won with more than 53% of the vote, defeating the hardline conservative Saeed Jalili, according to official results announced by the Interior Ministry. Turnout for the runoff was 49.8%, up from 40% in the initial election, clearly reflecting public fears of a Jalili presidency and clamor for change. Pezeshkian thwarted hardliners’ hopes that the runoff would consolidate a split vote among several conservative candidates in the initial June 28 vote. In that vote, Jalili, four other hardliners, and Pezeshkian - were permitted to compete.

Many reformist voters boycotted the initial round as a protest against regime leaders, who have sharply narrowed the presidential candidate fields in the past several elections to favor their insider candidates. All reformist candidates were excluded from the 2021 presidential election to pave the way for an easy victory by Raisi, a close ally of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The Leader’s allies allowed Pezeshkian to run in the hopes of driving higher turnout as a show of support for the Iranian system of governance. In the runoff, the regime achieved the elevated voter participation it had sought, but in so doing now faces a challenge from Pezeshkian, who has vowed to change some key policies. And regime leaders clearly perceive the unexpected victory by Pezeshkian, who was little known in Iran at the start of the campaign in mid-June, as a repudiation of its policies, particularly its denial of women’s rights.

Even though reformist voters and many others publicly celebrated the election, which ushers in the first reformist presidency since the administration of Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005), Pezeshkian faces a number of immediate challenges. Having risked potential regime retribution by electing a candidate critical of established policies, reformists have high expectations that Pezeshkian will produce meaningful change, particularly on domestic issues. But, he faces extensive restraints on his authority by Khamenei and his top aides and allies, all of whom are hardline conservatives. Khamenei issued a call for unity and continuity after the results were declared, advising the president-elect to continue the path set by Raisi – an indirect warning to Pezeshkian not to push the limits on his authority.

As Health Minister in Khatami’s government, Pezeshkian saw first-hand that Khatami’s election raised popular expectations of major change, only to have those hopes dashed by the hardliners insistent on blocking any significant alteration of their strict policies. The frustrated expectations caused a student uprising in 1999 that security forces backed by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) crushed with significant use of force. Recognizing the constraints, Pezeshkian himself has avoided crossing the regime’s red lines, for example, by pledging loyalty to the political system and praising the legendary IRGC- Qods Force commander Qassem Soleimani, slain in a Trump Administration strike in January 2020.

On key issues, Pezeshkian has promised to restore economic growth while explaining that doing so will require some easing of the U.S.-led secondary sanctions that apply to all sectors of Iran’s economy. That easing, Pezeshkian acknowledged, will require substantial Iranian nuclear concessions and direct engagement with U.S. officials, going beyond the indirect, periodic U.S.-Iran talks that have taken place in the Sultanate of Oman over the past two years. But, shifting Iran’s nuclear and foreign policy requires the support of the Supreme Leader, who, along with his aides, has resisted any compromises beyond those necessary to avoid direct U.S.-Iran conflict.

Hardliners dominate Iran’s Majles (parliament), a body that can block any Pezeshkian initiative that requires legislation. Even if Pezeshkian had official backing to change policy, there is little appetite among U.S. officials to ease sanctions on Iran. U.S. policy toward Iran has hardened in recent years as Iran has aligned with Moscow and Beijing, and the United States and Iran have drawn close to armed conflict as a result of attacks by Iran’s “Axis of Resistance” partners on Israel and on U.S. troops in the region.  U.S. policy toward Iran is unlikely to change more than marginally after the U.S. presidential election in November, no matter who wins.

The voters who turned out to deliver victory for Pezeshkian had high expectations that he will uphold his pledges of domestic reform. Although he stopped short of calling for an outright repeal of the public dress code laws, Pezeshkian pledged to rein in the country’s morality police, who arrest and often harm women who violate the dress code. He also promised to end curbs on Internet and social media use. Pezeshkian’s voters in particular hope his government will avoid a repeat of the September 2022 death in custody of the young Mahsa Amini, which sparked the months-long “Women, Life, Freedom” uprising. Jalili’s campaign platform to increase penalties on women who violate the dress code likely accounts, at least in part, for his defeat.

Regional and global powers are also evaluating the implications of the Iranian election. Global leaders assume that, within the constraints set by the Supreme Leader, the new Iranian president’s foreign policy might approximate that of President Hassan Rouhani, Raisi’s immediate predecessor who served from 2013-2021. Rouhani’s Foreign Minister was Mohammad Javad Zarif, who forged the JCPOA with the United States, Russia, China, Germany, France, and the United Kingdom in 2015. His extensive campaigning for Pezeshkian might have been instrumental in the election victory on Friday. Even if Pezeshkian does not return Zarif to heading the Foreign Ministry, it is certain Zarif will be the vicar of Pezeshkian’s foreign policy.

Zarif will undoubtedly guide Iranian policy toward the great powers, including searching for ways to restore the JCPOA through negotiations. However, since Rouhani and Zarif left office in 2021, Iran has aligned more closely with Russia and with China to undermine perceived U.S. global hegemony. As a result of its invasion of Ukraine, Russia no longer cooperates with Washington to constrain Iran’s nuclear program, and China has become a major investor in Iran as well as its overwhelmingly largest oil customer. Jalili had pledged even closer alignment with Moscow and Beijing if elected, and it is not certain how Pezeshkian and Zarif can distance Iran from those actors without risking alienation from the Supreme Leader.

Stressing an expectation of policy continuity, China’s leader Xi Jinping, in his congratulatory message to Pezeshkian, stated: “I attach great importance to the development of China-Iran relations and am willing to work with the [Iranian] President to lead the China-Iran comprehensive strategic partnership towards deeper advancement…”  Similarly, in his congratulatory message, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin stated: “I hope that your tenure as president will contribute to a reinforcement of constructive bilateral cooperation between our friendly peoples.”

Iran’s neighbors in and around the Persian Gulf appeared to breathe a sigh of relief upon Pezeshkian’s election, issuing congratulatory messages that accentuated the recent trend toward lower tensions.  The de-facto leader of Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), told the new Iranian president in a message: “I affirm my keenness on developing and deepening the relations between our countries and people and serve our mutual interests.” UAE President Shaykh Mohamed bin Zayid Al Nahyan (MBZ) said he wished Pezeshkian “success in his role” and looked forward “to working together to strengthen further ties between the UAE and Iran for the benefit of our two nations and peoples.” Still, the drivers of Iran-Gulf differences and underlying animosity remain intact, and flaring tensions and conflict are possible at any time, particularly in regionwide clashes and warfare since October 7.