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Iranian reformist wins presidency, seeks engagement with the West

6 days ago 37

A little-known reformist and cardiac surgeon, Masoud Pezeshkian, defeated his ultraconservative rival to become the next president of Iran, campaigning on more social freedoms and engagement with the West and describing his victory as the start of “a new chapter” for the country.

In a speech Saturday, Pezeshkian, 69, vowed to be a leader for “all Iranians” and said the government must be held accountable and “move forward with reforms.” He also acknowledged widespread public apathy — voter turnout was only 50 percent — and said he hopes to bring Iranians relief from U.S. sanctions and the threat of war.

“I have come… to seek lasting peace and tranquility and cooperation in the region, as well as dialogue and constructive interaction with the world,” Pezeshkian said from Tehran at the mausoleum of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979.

The candidate, a lawmaker from Tabriz, was one of six contenders approved by Iran’s influential Guardian Council to run for the presidency after Ebrahim Raisi, who was elected in 2021, died in a helicopter crash in May.

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Pezeshkian won the most votes in a first round on June 28, but failed to secure more than 50 percent, sending the election to a runoff Friday between him and prominent hard-liner Saeed Jalili.

Early Saturday, state news media announced that Pezeshkian had received 16.3 million votes, with Jalili trailing at about 13.5 million, a sign that the reformist mobilized much broader support.

Before sunrise in some parts of Tehran and Tabriz, people took to the streets to dance, play music, and sound their car horns, according to videos on social media and local news outlets.

But while Pezeshkian’s supporters hailed his victory as an opportunity for Iran to end its isolation, he will assume office with limited powers and at a time of heightened tension with Israel over the war in Gaza.

Here’s what to know about Iran’s new president, and the challenges he faces.

A veteran of the Iran-Iraq war who served in parliament and as Iran’s health minister, Pezeshkian has pushed for moderate reform but without challenging the country’s system of theocratic rule under Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader.

He has pledged to bridge what he described as the “gap” in Iran between the people and the government. “I will do everything possible to look at those who were not seen by the powerful and whose voices are not heard. We will make poverty, discrimination, war, lies and corruption disappear from this country,” he said at a rally this week.

While campaigning for president, he advocated for loosening some social restrictions, including removing blanket internet restrictions and ending the enforcement of Iran’s mandatory dress code for women.

He said he also supports greater transparency in the banking and financial sectors, including implementing measures that would allow Iran’s removal from a blacklist maintained by the Financial Action Task Force, a global watchdog for money laundering and terrorist financing.

On the foreign policy front, Pezeshkian has emphasized negotiations with the West, including the United States. He said he wants to revive talks around sanctions relief for Iran and to court foreign investment to boost the ailing economy.

Iran under president-elect Pezeshkian “is 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,” Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s former foreign minister, posted to X on Saturday.

Zarif helped negotiate Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers. President Donald Trump later scrapped the agreement, which curbed Iran’s atomic energy program in exchange for widespread sanctions relief.

“The world must listen and engage with us in mutual respect, equal footing and recognition of Iran’s role in the world,” Zarif said.

After Iran's presidential election on June 28 failed to produce a winner, the two leading candidates faced off in a runoff election on July 5. (Video: AP)

Pezeshkian’s surprise victory Saturday showed that he was able to expand his base of support, pulling from both the reformist and more moderate conservative ranks, said Mehrzad Boroujerdi, an Iran analyst and dean at Missouri University of Science and Technology.

He said the reformist’s win was probably aided by an “intense” dislike of Jalili among moderate voters. For many, Jalili, who wanted to strengthen ties with Russia and keep a hostile stance toward the West, "came across as a rigid ideologue of yesteryear,” he said.

Jalili issued a congratulatory note to Pezeshkian on Saturday, conceding defeat and vowing to aid the incoming president in the common goal of “elevating” the Islamic Republic.

Still, Iran’s hard-line conservatives, who dominate most branches of the governing system, might frustrate the plans Pezeshkian set out during his campaign.

“The conservatives will try to create obstacles from Day 1,” Boroujerdi said. “He won’t have much of a honeymoon. … They will apply the brakes to whatever Pezeshkian will try to do.”

Khamenei also issued a statement promoting unity. “It is time for competitive election-related behaviors to turn into the morals of companionship” he said.

At the same time, low voter turnout and widespread public apathy weakened Pezeshkian’s mandate.

In his speech Saturday, the president-elect addressed voters who did not participate. “It is time for dialogue in Iran. The government should know what you are saying and why you did not come” to the polls, he said.

Earlier this week,Khamenei also remarked on the lack of voter participation.

“If the people demonstrate better participation in the elections, the Islamic Republic system will be able to achieve its words, intentions, and goals both within the country and also in the broader strategic expectations of the country,” Khamenei said, according to a summary of the remarks posted to X on Wednesday.

Iran’s clerical rulers see high turnout as key to their legitimacy at a time when they are facing domestic and regional crises.

Crises at home and abroad

Across the Middle East — from Gaza to Lebanon and Yemen — armed groups allied with Iran are attacking Israel and its backers, threatening American military bases and disrupting global shipping lanes. In April, after an Israeli attack on an Iranian diplomatic building in Damascus, Syria, Tehran launched its first direct military attack on Israel, bringing a years-long shadow war into the open.

At home, many Iranians are still reeling from the brutal government crackdown on nationwide protests that erupted in 2022, following the death of Mahsa Amini, a young Kurdish woman, in the custody of the widely reviled “morality police.”

In the uprising’s aftermath, the regime doubled down, sentencing some protesters to death and increasing penalties for women who disobey its strict dress codes.

Amid simmering social unrest and a deepening economic crisis, the presidential campaign featured some rare acknowledgment of the challenges faced by the country’s ruling class — a sign, analysts say, of how serious those challenges have become.

“It has reached a stage where it is just impossible to overlook it,” said Ali Vaez, the Iran project director for the International Crisis Group. “The gap between the state and the society has reached a stage where it cannot just be painted over.”

Frances Vinall contributed to this report.

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