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Euroviews. Why is Masoud Pezeshkian (most likely to be) Iran's next president?

Presidential candidate Masoud Pezeshkian arrives for a debate of the candidates at the TV studio in Tehran, June 2024
Presidential candidate Masoud Pezeshkian arrives for a debate of the candidates at the TV studio in Tehran, June 2024 Copyright AP Photo/Euronews
Copyright AP Photo/Euronews
By Babak Kamiar, Head of Persian Service, Euronews
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The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent in any way the editorial position of Euronews.

Seen as a reformist by many, Pezeshkian must be free to fulfil his promises without interference, especially from the IRGC and other radical hardliners inside and outside the parliament, Euronews' Babak Kamiar writes.

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Whether Ebrahim Raisi's death was an accident or the result of a premeditated conspiracy by internal forces of the Islamic Republic regime, the reality is that the deadlock of the 13th government in resolving endless economic problems and addressing the nuclear issue with the West, especially with the increasing likelihood of Trump's return to the White House, has left Ali Khamenei, the leader of Iran, in need of a new and different "soldier".

Right now, Iranian society is like a cinder under ashes — a single spark can ignite it again. The previous flames have not yet been fully extinguished, and the government's imminent need to increase fuel prices could reignite the unrest.

Given the current state of international relations, it is unclear whether the Islamic Republic has the capability to manage such a situation again.

On one hand, for the first time in decades, Iran has entered into direct military confrontation with Netanyahu's Israel.

On the other, European powers have increasingly opposed Tehran by putting more pressure on Iran to explain uranium traces found at undeclared sites and calling the Islamic Republic to find ways to cooperate with the IAEA more adequately.

The less stringent Biden administration is unlikely to stay in power much longer, and Vladimir Putin's Russia may have to yield to peace with Ukraine's Volodymyr Zelenskyy, which could signal the end of its apparent support for the Islamic Republic, based completely on Russian national interests.

While ultra-conservative Saeed Jalili's presidency might appeal to the Russians and ensure Tehran's distance from the West, the reality is that a figure like Masoud Pezeshkian, due to his fundamental differences with his rival in the second round, can act as a “safety valve” for the regime in times of danger.

Pezeshkian, often labelled as a reformist, can prevent anger from turning into hatred by guaranteeing some social freedoms to the youth, such as relaxing the mandatory hijab and offering some relative freedoms in society.

Absence of 37 million voters an issue

Some critics believe that his approval by the Guardian Council — a powerful, 12-member decision-making body — was not a coincidence and that his presidency might be an effort by the regime's core to prevent a collapse. That is why proponents of "regime change" see him as a way out and advocate for a total boycott.

Pezeshkian, who served as a minister in Mohammad Khatami's reformist government, managed to secure nearly 10.5 million votes on a day when voter turnout was said to be less than 40%, surpassing Jalili to reach the second round.

If Ayatollah Khamenei sees the continuation of his political life and that of his family in entrusting the government to Pezeshkian, then this time, unlike previous terms, he must not only give him access to the lock but also its key.
Posters of reformist candidate for the Iranian presidential election Masoud Pezeshkian are pasted on the wall at his campaign headquarters, in Tehran, June 2024
Posters of reformist candidate for the Iranian presidential election Masoud Pezeshkian are pasted on the wall at his campaign headquarters, in Tehran, June 2024AP Photo/Vahid Salemi

Reformists and moderates from Hassan Rouhani's government are working together to persuade a portion of the 60% who boycotted the elections to ensure Pezeshkian's presence in the presidential office.

Their ability to convince the boycotters for the second round against the most hardliner candidate remains uncertain.

The absence of about 37 million eligible voters on a day when the leader of the Islamic Republic described "each vote as a vote for the Islamic Republic" has sent a very clear message.

Most absentees and those who boycotted the elections do not believe in realising their legitimate demands within the current regime. They understand that the president lacks the legal power and capability to implement the fundamental principles enshrined in the constitution.

Will Pezeshkian's hands become untied?

If Ayatollah Khamenei sees the continuation of his political life and that of his family in entrusting the government to Pezeshkian, then this time, unlike previous terms, he must not only give him access to the lock but also its key. Pezeshkian must be free to fulfil his promises without interference, especially from the IRGC and other radical hardliners inside and outside the parliament.

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Deescalation, especially with the US and European powers, avoiding overreliance on Russia and China, presenting a more moderate image of Iran, and reopening the economy by facilitating foreign investment can bring economic benefits to the Iranian people and ensure the regime's continuity.

Entrusting the government to Jalili will not meet this need, considering his main characteristic of "Western animosity" and his explicit opposition to joining international treaties like the anti-money laundering, terrorist and proliferation financing FATF.

A supporter of reformist candidate Masoud Pezeshkian sticks his poster to a door in a campaign meeting in Tehran, June 2024
A supporter of reformist candidate Masoud Pezeshkian sticks his poster to a door in a campaign meeting in Tehran, June 2024AP Photo/Vahid Salemi

During his election campaign, Pezeshkian clarified that it is Khamenei who sets the general policies, including foreign policy, and that if he wins the election, he will act accordingly and align with the leader’s decisions.

However, there is a huge difference between both candidates in the way they execute the leader's orders. "Normalisation and lifting the sanctions" will not bring the same results as "neutralising the sanctions", for one.

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It remains to be seen what happens to the domestic and international architects of sanctions and the beneficiaries of corruption and whether Pezeshkian will be allowed such a change in practice.

In his speeches, the Iranian leader has practically called for excluding individuals in the future cabinet who are "reliant on America". This could make the confidence vote for Pezeshkian's cabinet highly contentious, with the probable presence of figures like firebrand former foreign minister Javad Zarif.

For this, we must wait until Friday. Politics in Iran is so complex that a last-minute turnaround is not shocking. In fact, every impossibility in Iranian politics should be considered possible.

Babak Kamiar is the Head of the Persian Service at Euronews.

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