Iran Elects Moderate President in Close Runoff Election

ON 07/08/2024 AT 02 : 56 AM

Speculators wonder if Masoud Pezeshkian’s radically different campaign agenda could defuse years of contentiousness with the west.
Iranian President Masoud Pezeshkian.
Masoud Pezeshkian, a lawmaker with a social reform agenda supporting transparency in government and social reforms, plans to improve transparency in government, and a foreign policy for peace and to reach out to the western powers with the hopes of removing long-standing economic sanctions, narrowly won election as the new president of Iran on July 5. BRICS Info, via X

In elections held Friday, a former heart surgeon who once held the position of Iran’s health minister, and who was also a regional reform lawmaker from Tabriz who was mostly unknown outside the country, became the surprise pick of Iranians as their next president.

The elections came in the wake of a still-mysterious helicopter crash which killed former President Ebrahim Raisi, Foreign Minister Amir-Abdollahian, and several other senior government officials. The helicopter went down in the mountains near the Azerbaijan border on May 19, as Raisi and the others were returning to Tehran from a ceremonial event with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev.

Raisi’s government was at the time involved in multiple high-stakes political and military actions in the Middle East. It had been for a long time a strong backer with money and arms supplies to Hamas to assist with fighting against Zionist Israel in its genocidal war in Gaza, along with similar support for Hezbollah from its bases in Lebanon in its escalating conflict with Israeli forces especially in northern Israel. It was also behind insurgent attacks from bases in Iraq against principally Israeli but also sometimes American forces using bases nearby. Those latter attacks were particularly associated with American bases which provide munitions supply chain support to Israel.

Raisi was also the Iranian president present when Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) launched a major illegal air strike on the Iranian embassy in Syria on April 1. That assault destroyed the embassy, reducing the structure and areas nearby to rubble, in a gross violation of international law. It also killed Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC) Brigadier Gen Mohammad Reza Zahedi, his second-in-command, and other leaders.

In retribution, Raisi directed his country’s military to launch the biggest aerial attack against Israel in the last thirty years. He did so with multiple public warnings, which appear in retrospect to have been made to give Israel a chance to gear up for the counterattack, perhaps even as a means of testing Israel’s military strength against an assault by a well-prepared military. The airstrikes began in waves, beginning with inexpensive but potentially damaging drones seeded in the night skies over Israel starting roughly two weeks after the IDF hit the Iranian embassy in Damascus. It was followed up with more advanced weaponry, reportedly including hypersonic missiles which were far more successful in penetrating Israel’s famed “Iron Dome” mobile missile defense system provided in conjunction with the U.S. government.

The Iranian air raid was also alleged to have successfully breached defenses on the air base used by the IDF to stage the mission against the Iranian embassy. A news blackout imposed on everything associated with that quickly squelched any information spreading about this proving how weak Israel might be in defending against such a concerted enemy assault.

Iran has also been fervently investing in its nuclear arms development program, after Donald Trump unilaterally pulled out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) program signed off while Barack Obama was president. That earlier program eased trade sanction against Iran in return for Iran committing, at least publicly, to holding back on his high-efficiency uranium enrichment program projects which could lead to much faster production of basic nuclear weapons warheads. When the Trump team dumped JCPOA, it applied to Iran some of the toughest sanctions the United States ever put in place against any government in the world.

Former President Ebrahim Raisi, who came to power in the summer of 2022, took on his role as a radical right-wing leader determined to prove his country’s ability to thrive despite those sanctions. He campaigned then offering to work with the United States and other original western co-signers of the JCPOA on a new series of talks and offering potential compromises to get sanctions lifted once again.

Those talks with the U.S. began with much global attention but eventually stalled multiple times over the first six months of Raisi’s rule. They finally sputtered out with nothing agreed upon publicly. Since that time, Raisi’s administration moved full speed ahead on its own uranium enrichment programs. Those programs accelerated rapidly this year, with substantial facilities expansions at both its Fordow plant deep underground in the mountains in north-central Iran and another facility near Narantz. Israel attempted to blow apart some of those facilities in a targeted airstrike on April 18, but with little success.

According to reports filed by the International Atomic Energy Association and others, Iran’s new uranium centrifuges will have the capability to process enough material to supporting building at least five nuclear warheads per month, possibly by as early as August.

Ebrahim Raisi also logged two other major accomplishments in his just under two years’ time in office as president. One was becoming on January 1, 2024, a member of BRICS, the geopolitical and economic alliance founded by Brazil, India, South Africa, and Iran’s close allies Russia and China. Raisi parlayed that into developing stronger relations across the globe, as well as reopening relations with other countries it had been estranged from in the Middle East for some time, including Saudi Arabia. Raisi also opened talks to have Iran to reconnect with the important Arab League group of nations.

While leading the country to broad military and diplomatic achievements, Raisi also presided over one of the worst economic collapses in the country’s recent history. He also had his military actively round up, arrest, and imprison dissidents who attempted to lobby or protest against his administration.

It is against this backdrop that Masoud Pezeshkian was chosen as one of six candidates authorized by Iran’s Guardian Council to appear on the nation’s ballot as the nation’s replacement for deceased president.

Pezeshkian distinguished himself by running on a platform of new social reforms. But more distinct from all other positions he held was his desire to lead Iran as a more moderate president, and an open interest in rebuilding relations with the west. He has pledged to attempt to get a new version of the JCPOA agreed upon with those western powers, in return for the removal of the current pile of highly restrictive economic sanctions, particularly those the United States has imposed.

When the full slate of six candidates ran against each other on June 28, Pezeshkian surprisingly pulled ahead of all others with 42.5% of the votes. In second place with 38.2% was Saeed Jalili, a right-wing ultraconservative more like Raisi and his predecessors than what Pezeshkian represents. Jalili is best known outside of Iran for his role as a key nuclear negotiator working alongside Raisi in the ill-fated talks with the Biden administration which took place in the second half of 2022 and into early 2023.

While at the time Pezeshkian’s pulling ahead of Jalili was considered significant, the betting was that Jalili would emerge the leader when the runoff was carried out against the top two candidates from the first round.

It was therefore a shock both within Iran and across the world that Pezeshkian pulled ahead in the second-round election on July 5. He ended up drawing 16.3 million of the approximately 30 million people who voted that day, for a 53.7% majority. Jalili received 13.5 million votes for a 45% result.

The just under 30 million votes that were cast represented 49.6% of the 60 million people eligible to vote in the race. It was considered a poor turnout for the country in a race which could drastically reshape the future of the nation. Pundits pointed out that it was at least a substantially better result than what occurred in the first round just over a week before, when just 39.9% of those eligible voted, and only 24.5 million votes were cast. A full million of those votes were also declared invalid and had to be thrown out.

A low turnout in both rounds of voting, along with the slim majority Pezeshkian drew on Saturday, is expected to pose difficulties as the new president attempts to bring forward a moderate platform and potential outreach to the United States and Europe and shift the previous near-wartime-footing position Raisi represented.

After all votes were accounted for Saturday, the Ministry of Interior issued a formal statement that, ““By gaining [the] majority of the votes cast on Friday, Pezeshkian has become Iran’s next president.”

Runner-up Jalili quickly conceded, while also calling for his supporters, many of whom he knew would be dissatisfied with the result, to rally behind the new president.

““Not only should he be respected, but now we must use all our strength and help him move forward with strength,” he said in remarks broadcast on state television.

Pezeshkian gave his first major speech as president-elect soon late on July 6, soon after that his election was certified.

In a televised address made from in front of the mausoleum of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, he told the public he hoped his administration would “usher in a new chapter” for Iran, one which would help the economy grow again and bring Iran’s part of the Middle East back from the brink of all-out 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,” he declared.

It was a statement like one he had made while campaigning on the road last week, in which he promised if elected he would do something about the growing gap between the lives of ordinary citizens and government officials.

“I will do everything possible to look at those who were not seen by the powerful and whose voices are not heard,” he said. “We will make poverty, discrimination, war, lies and corruption disappear from this country.”

Part of the means by which he pledges to do this is by making the actions and decisions of the highest levels of government more transparent to the people. He also hopes to get Iran seen globally as less corrupt, including working directly with the Financial Action Task Force, an international body which tracks money laundering and flows of money to organizations designated by them as terrorist in nature, to get Iran removed from a blacklist they put the country on some years ago.

While the promises Masoud Pezeshkian issued publicly during his campaign and in his acceptance address were lofty, he does have strong supporters already from within the administration.

One who spoke up on the new president’s behalf on July 6 was former Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

With Pezeshkian in charge, he wrote in a post on the social media platform X, Iran 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.”

Traditional international partners of Iran’s such as President Vladimir Putin have already sent their congratulations to the new Iranian leader.

Those in the west, including Joe Biden who is these days more preoccupied with whether he will remain in the presidential race against Donald Trump, have been notably silent.