Pezeshkian: Implications of Win

In a clear challenge to regime hardliners, Masoud Pezeshkian, a reformist and cardiac surgeon, won Iran’s snap presidential election on July 5. The elections were called after President Ebrahim Raisi died in a helicopter crash on May 19. The runoff had been considered a tight race, but Pezeshkian won decisively with almost three million more votes than Saeed Jalili, a hardliner and former nuclear negotiator. Due to take office in August, Pezeshkian, a former deputy speaker of parliament and health minister, will take power as Iran’s government faces legitimacy challenges amid an economic crisis. Beyond these domestic challenges, Iran’s new president will have to navigate the evolving regional fallout from the war in Gaza.   

Masoud Pezeshkian

What were the results? What changed between the first round of voting on June 28 and the runoff on July 5?

The majority of Iran’s 61 million eligible voters — some 60 percent — boycotted the first poll on June 28. The lowest turnout since the 1979 revolution reflected deep public discontent and political apathy about the theocracy. None of the four remaining candidates who were allowed to run — out of 80 who registered — won the majority of votes. Pezeshkian, the dark horse of the race and the only reformist approved by the Guardian Council, came in first with 10.4 million votes. And Jalili received 9.4 votes to qualify for the first runoff since 2005. 

After the first round, both candidates appealed to voters on social media, held political rallies and called on prominent allies to mobilize voters. One of Pezeshkian’s prominent supporters put the choice in stark terms. “We won’t let Iran fall to the Taliban,” Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi, a former telecommunications minister, posted in reference to the rigid rulers in neighboring Afghanistan.

Some 5.5 million more voters participated in the runoff, which boosted turnout to nearly 50 percent compared to 40 percent in the first poll. Pezeshkian secured 16.3 million votes, 54 percent, compared to Jalili’s 13.5 million votes, or 44 percent. But Pezeshkian lacks a broad public mandate and faces an uphill battle to change policy within a government dominated by hardliners.


What are the implications for domestic policy?

During the campaign, Pezeshkian avoided making sweeping promises of reform. The five-time member of parliament repeatedly stressed his loyalty to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the principles of the 1979 revolution. But he acknowledged the government’s legitimacy gap and widespread discontent. “When we ignore people's rights and do not want to listen to their voices, expecting them to come to the polls is not a reasonable expectation,” he said during the July 1 debate. Iran has faced sporadic waves of anti-government protests since 2017 over economic grievances and personal freedoms, particularly women’s rights.

Pezeshkian mainly advocated for changes on cultural and censorship issues. He especially criticized the government’s enforcement of mandatory hijab, or headscarf, and internet censorship. “Every day, we are losing our public backing because of how we treat women, because of how we treat the internet because of our filtering,” he said during the July 1 debate with Jalili. “Because of our conduct, people are dissatisfied with us.” In 2022, Pezeshkian held the morality police responsible for the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year old woman who died in custody after being detained for improper hijab. “It is unacceptable that in the Islamic Republic, a girl is arrested for her hijab and then her body is handed to her family,” he tweeted in 2022.

Iran’s president, via his interior minister, and as head of the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution has a say on issues like enforcement of the Islamic dress code. The president also heads the Supreme Council of Cyberspace, which sets policies on internet filtering. Pezeshkian said that bans on X, formerly Twitter, and other social media platforms should end.

Pezeshkian supporters at a campaign rally (Arash Khamooshi/NYT)

During the campaign, Pezeshkian also called for greater inclusion of ethnic and religious minorities in the government. “There is no Sunni Kurd in the high ranks of this country,” he said during the July 1 debate with Jalili. “You appoint people from your own circles and exclude the rest of the population.” Born to an Azeri father and a Kurdish mother, Pezeshkian has repeatedly championed diversity as an asset to the country.


What are the implications for foreign policy? How might Pezeshkian impact Iran’s ties with the outside world?

The president has limited say over Iran’s foreign policy, which is set through an opaque consensus-building process. The Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) is the highest body in charge of foreign policy and national security. The president, as chairman, can influence debates and play a role in setting the agenda. But he is just one of 12 permanent members with high-ranking military, political or ministerial positions. Jalili, for example, is also on the council as the supreme leader’s representative. Ultimately, SNSC decisions must be approved by the supreme leader. 

During the campaign, Pezeshkian did not promise dramatic changes in foreign or national security policy. He lauded the Revolutionary Guards and the conventional military for building deterrent power. “One of the reasons others cannot act against us is precisely the capability of our drones and missiles,” he said on June 24.

Mohajer-6 reconnaissance & strike drone

Pezeshkian also praised General Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the elite Quds Force who was killed in a 2020 U.S. airstrike. “I consider him a source of national pride and a thorn in the eyes of our enemies,” he said on July 2. Soleimani was widely considered a military hero for directing Iranian military operations across the Middle East and support for militia allies, including Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza, as well as militias from Iraq, Yemen, Bahrain, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

But Pezeshkian took a less confrontational stance on foreign policy than his conservative opponents. “For me, foreign policy means interaction, economic growth, and engagement — for peace and for people, not at their expense,” he said during the July 1 debate against Jalili.

Most notably, Pezeshkian called for improving ties with the West and reviving the 2015 nuclear deal brokered with the world’s six major powers. He argued that relief from U.S. sanctions and foreign investment were essential for significant economic growth. “No government in history has been able to achieve growth and prosperity within a cage,” he said during the July 2 debate.

Returning to indirect talks with the United States and world powers over Iran’s controversial nuclear program would not necessarily be a radical departure from previous policy. Under Raisi’s government, Iran participated in off-and-on negotiations — conducted through third parties — for nearly a year. Tehran, however, rejected a final draft of a deal presented by the European Union in August 2022.

Pezeshkian’s appeal for greater engagement with the outside world, including the West, was reflected in his choice of advisor, former Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. Zarif appeared with Pezeshkian at campaign events and on state television to discuss foreign policy. He was instrumental in negotiating the 2015 nuclear deal during the presidency of Hassan Rouhani (2013-2021), a centrist, and even developed a close working relationship with then-Secretary of State John Kerry despite decades of tortured U.S.-Iran relations.

Related Material:

Pezeshkian: Profile of President-elect

Pezeshkian: On the Issues

Pezeshkian: World Reaction

Pezeshkian also called for deescalating tensions with Iran’s neighbors to promote commerce and tourism. He said that Iran should be a key hub for trade given its strategic location. “Why couldn't we achieve this? Because we are in conflict both among ourselves and with our neighbors,” he said during the June 24 debate.

Pezeshkian’s emphasis on Iran’s neighbors suggested that he may want to further rapprochement with regional rival Saudi Arabia. He criticized hardliners for undermining Iran’s relations by attacking foreign embassies, including the Saudi mission in Tehran. He questioned who climbed over the wall of the British Embassy in 2011. "The same people who climbed the embassy wall now have government posts.” He also questioned who set fire to the Saudi Embassy in 2016. “Did the reformers do this?” 

Tehran and Riyadh severed diplomatic relations in 2016 after Saudi Arabia executed Nimr al Nimr, a popular local Shiite cleric, and Iranian protesters set fire to the Saudi embassy in Tehran in retaliation. But in 2023, they agreed to a China-brokered deal on restoring ties. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman congratulated Pezeshkian on his election on July 6, 2024. “I affirm my keenness on developing and deepening the relations between our countries and people and serve our mutual interests.”

On Israel, Pezeshkian, maintained Iran’s hard-line position. “God willing, we will try to have friendly relations with all countries except Israel,” he said on June 28, 2024. In a letter to Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, Pezeshkian also pledged to maintain Iran’s support for groups opposed to Israel. “I am certain that the resistance movements in the region will not allow this regime to continue its warmongering and criminal policies against the oppressed people of Palestine and other nations of the region,” he said on July 8.

In a post on X, Zarif contended that Iran, under Pezeshkian, will be “more unified, resolute, and prepared than ever to tackle its challenges, strengthen its relationships with neighboring countries, and reassert its role in the emerging global order.”


What does he plan to do about Iran’s economic crisis?

Pezeshkian faces a daunting set of economic challenges, including persistent inflation, high unemployment, government mismanagement and chronic corruption. He pledged to be transparent about government spending, cut down on government bloat, and fight corruption. He also promised to bring back experts and experienced technocrats to better manage the economy. “The reason for the current situation is incompetent, inexperienced and unqualified managers,” he said in the July 2 debate.

But Pezeshkian warned that economic growth would be limited without relief from U.S. sanctions and compliance with international standards on money laundering. “I consider sanctions a serious detriment,” he said during the July 1 debate. “My foreign policy aims to normalize relations with the world. I support the implementation of FATF [Financial Action Task Force] and JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the 2015 nuclear deal].”

The FATF is an intergovernmental body of 38 member countries that sets standards to counter the financing of terrorism and money laundering. Since 2020, the FATF has backlisted Iran, largely cutting it off from the international financial system. As a result, Iran's public and private sectors faced difficulties attracting foreign investment. As of 2024, North Korea and Myanmar were the only other countries flagged as high-risk jurisdictions.