Pezeshkian may not end Iran’s Western-driven isolation - GulfToday

Pezeshkian may not end Iran’s Western-driven isolation

Michael Jansen

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Iran-Election

A girl holds up a scarf showing the name of Iran’s newly-elected president Masoud Pezeshkian as the president visits the shrine of the Islamic Republic’s founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in Tehran. Agence France-Presse

The victory of centrist Masoud Pezeshkian in Iran’s snap presidential election has challenged the reign of hardline conservatives who dominate influential clerical bodies and the elected parliament. He replaces hardliner Ebrahim Raisi who was killed in a helicopter crash in May.

Defeated ultraconservative candidate Saeed Jalili promptly conceded by saying, “Not only should he be respected, but now we must use all our strength and help him move forward with strength.” He adopted a positive line despite his opposition to relaxation of social constraints and reconciliation with the West, the main domestic and foreign policies proposed by Pezeshkian.

As Iran’s ninth elected president, Pezeshkian must be confirmed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, resign as a deputy from and be sworn in by parliament. He will have to consult parliament over his cabinet choices and, ultimately, submit them to Khamenei for approval.

Pezeshkian called for reconciliation and for the public to support him in his efforts to honour his campaign pledges. On the home front, he promised to promote reconciliation between the cleric-led conservative establishment and the alienated populace. One way he can do this is to curb the powers of the morality police which have cracked down on women who do not wear their headscarf (hijab) as mandated by law and loosen restrictions on the internet.

The existing rift between the reactionary clerics and young Iranians who demand freedom from interference on their personal lives and interactions widened dramatically in 2022 after Mahsa Amini, 23, was arrested by morality police for “bad hijab” and died in custody. In response, country-wide protests erupted under the slogan, “Woman, Life, Freedom” and were joined by tens of thousands of Iranians demonstrating against inflation, unemployment, and corruption.

On the foreign front, Pezeshkian has promised to cultivate better relations with the West and seek relief from sanctions which have crippled Iran’s economy. To achieve this objective, he will have to push both clerics in Tehran and politicians in Washington to reopen talks on the 2015 agreement between Iran and the US, UK, France, Germany, China and Russia. The deal limited Iran’s nuclear programme in exchange for sanctions relief. Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the deal in 2018 led to Tehran breaching its commitments by enriching excessive amounts of uranium to a higher level of purity than permitted. Although US President Joe Biden campaigned on a promise to return to the deal, he failed to honour this commitment and is unlikely to do so before the November presidential election.

Pezeshkian has leverage to achieve some of his objectives as he defeated Jalili by nearly three million votes – 16.3 million against 13.5 million. Turnout in the first round on June 28th – which was won narrowly by Pezeshkian – was 39.93 per cent due to apathy and boycott. Pezeshkian garnered 10,415,991 votes against Jalili’s 9,493,298 votes. As neither won 50 per cent plus, the runoff took place on July 5th.

Following the first round, Khamenei criticised the low turnout as a “disgrace” as it undermines the legitimacy of the two-tier governing structure which depends public acceptance. This has worn thin after 45 years and prompted frequent mass protests.

The top tier consists of appointed clerical bodies which impose controls on lower tier elected officials. At the apex of the structure is the supreme leader who is the ultimate decision maker.

Turnout in the second round of the presidential poll was boosted to 49.8 per cent as Pezeshkian’s candidacy energised voters in both camps. This was the highest level of participation since the 2021 presidential poll which was won by ultraconservative Raisi in an election rigged in his favour by the unelected conservative Guardian Council, a body which vets candidates for office.

Pezeshkian, 69, is a heart surgeon and member of parliament for Tabriz since May 2008. He served as First Deputy Speaker from 2016 to 2020 and was Minister of Health and Medical Education between 2001 and 2005 in the government of reformist President Mohammad Khatami. Pezeshkian has openly criticised the government’s handling of periodic bouts of mass protest. Khatami, moderate President Hassan Rouhani, and ex-Foreign Minister Javad Zarif backed Pezeshkian’s bid for the presidency.

Born to an Iranian Azeri father and Iranian Kurdish mother, Pezeshkian also had the support of those two minority communities. While serving in the military, he decided to study medicine. After becoming a general practitioner, he was appointed to deploy and accompany medical teams to the front lines during the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88).

Once the war ended he continued training in general and heart surgery. Following the deaths of his gynaecologist wife and one child in a 1993 car accident, he raised his two sons and daughter. He and his family have not been charged with corruption which is rampant in Iran.

Since the 1979 revolution against the Shah, Iran’s presidency has shifted back and forth between conservatives and moderates/reformists. Following the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, founder of the Iranian Islamic Republic, conservative President Khamenei (1981-89) became the country’s supreme leader, He was followed by moderate Hashemi Rafsanjani (1989-97) who sought reconciliation with the West and reformist Khatami (1997-2005) who promoted a “Dialogue of Civilisations.” Both were rebuffed by the US and its Western allies and were succeeded by populist hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005-13). Reformist Rouhani (2013-21) concluded the nuclear deal and was followed by hardliner Raisi (August 2021-May 2024).

Iran has longstanding relations with the UAE and reconciled with Saudi Arabia in March 2023, but Pezeshkian is unlikely to end Iran’s Western-driven isolation and ostracism. This began with the 1979 ouster of the West’s ally, the Shah, and the Iranian students’ invasion of the US embassy in Tehran where they held 53 diplomats and staff hostage for 444 days.

Since then, the US and its subservient Western allies have remained hostile and blame Iran rather than Israel for the extreme violence infecting this region. Israel’s ongoing nine-month war on Gaza has deepened US and Western animosity towards Iran as it supports Palestine’s Hamas and Lebanon’s Hizbollah which resist Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory.

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