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Masoud Pezeshkian: What to expect from Iran's new president

Youhanna Najdi
July 8, 2024

Iran's newly elected president has to tackle a raft of economic and geopolitical challenges. His authority is limited, however, as the supreme leader still calls the shots in the Islamic Republic.

Iran's new president, Masoud Pezeshkian, smiles as he holds up his hands and gestures while greeting supporters
During the campaign, Pezeshkian promised there would be no radical changes to Iran's theocratic regimeImage: Vahid Salemi/dpa/AP/picture alliance

Iranians on Saturday elected the comparatively moderate Masoud Pezeshkian as their next president in a runoff vote that pitted him against Saeed Jalili, an ultraconservative, anti-Western former nuclear negotiator.

Pezeshkian, a heart surgeon, has been a member of the Iranian parliament since 2008.

He served as the country's health minister from 2001 to 2005 under then-president Mohammad Khatami, who was seen as a reformer.

The 69-year-old president-elect has vowed to build trust between a "possible moderate government" and the population.

His campaign sought to win over the disheartened supporters of the reformist camp.

Iran's main reformist coalition supported Pezeshkian, with endorsements by former presidents Khatami and Hassan Rouhani.

Iran: Reformist Pezeshkian beats hard-liner, wins presidency

Who calls the shots in Iran?

During the campaign, Pezeshkian promised no radical changes to Iran's Islamic, clergy-dominated, theocratic regime.

Pezeshkian has publicly pledged loyalty to the country's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and has no intention of confronting the republic's powerful security hawks and clerical rulers.

In the Islamic Republic's political system, the president is not the head of state but the head of government, elected by popular vote.

Most authority lies with the country's supreme leader, a position Khamenei has held since 1989.

The president, for instance, cannot make any changes to Iran's nuclear program, nor to foreign or security policy. Final say on all of those topics belongs to Khamenei.

Moreover,nearly every branch of the Iranian government is still largely controlled by hard-liners, limiting the president's sway over the country's governance. 

"The foreign policies of the Islamic Republic, as stated by Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, don't fall within the decision-making of the president," said Ighan Shahidi, an Iranian researcher at the University of Cambridge.

"These policies pertain to the decisions of the supreme leader and the high-ranking security institutions, which have long-term plans to expand Iran's regional influence, as a necessary tool to increase its bargaining power and impact on regional dynamics," he told DW.

Iran's Pezeshkian unlikely to bring reform, expert suggests

Iran faces massive economic challenges

Even though it is unclear whether Pezeshkian will be able to implement even modest changes, as the country's top elected official a president can nevertheless influence the tone of Iranian policy.

He will also be directly involved in selecting a successor to the aging Khamenei, who is now 85.

Iran's presidential election was held against a backdrop of heightened regional tensions over the war between Israel and Iranian allies Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Any further escalation on that front could potentially drag Iran into a direct conflict with Israel.

There is also massive domestic discontent over the poor state of Iran's economy.

The country is facing high joblessness, while inflation has been hovering at around 40%, with the Iranian rial now at a record low.

A third of the country's 90 million citizens now live in poverty, according to official data, marking a jump of 11 million over the past 13 years.

Hamid Babaei, assistant professor at the IESEG School of Management in Paris, told DW that Pezeshkian's biggest challenges will be boosting economic growth and controlling inflation.

"Over the past 15 years, cumulative economic growth has been almost zero. Inflation in Iran is a chronic issue, primarily caused by the budget deficit and monetary expansion," he said.

Babaei believes it is "highly unlikely" that Pezeshkian will be able to address those economic challenges.

"It can be said that Iran's macroeconomic indicators are at the beginning of a downward spiral, which seems impossible for any president to control," he stressed.

Can Pezeshkian reach out to the West?

Still, on the campaign trail, Pezeshkian vowed to "repair" the economy.

Part of his plan to do so, was his promise to reach out to the West to try to "get Iran out of its isolation" and free the country from international sanctions.

The new president also favors reviving the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and global powers.

The pact has been in limbo since former US President Donald Trump pulled Washington out of the accord in 2018 and reimposed sanctions on Tehran.

Iran’s new president to seek ‘deal with the West

Can he quell domestic dissatisfaction over rigid social policies?

Furthermore, Pezeshkian has spoken out against the Muslim nation's rigid headscarf policy, vowing to "fully" oppose police patrols enforcing it.

Covering one's hair with a headscarf, or hijab, is mandatory for women in Iran. Violations are strictly punished by the country's religious authorities.

In September 2022, the death of 22-year-old Jina Mahsa Amini in police custody triggered massive anti-government demonstrations. The young woman had been arrested by the nation's so-called morality police, who claimed she had failed to properly cover her hair.

The brutal crackdown authorities meted out on the protests left deep rifts within Iranian society.

No improvement expected?

Ighan Shahidi told DW he doesn't expect any improvement in Iran in terms of human rights, especially for women and persecuted religious minorities like the Bahai community, even under Pezeshkian's presidency.

"What is clear is that there are directives and regulations issued by other high-ranking organizations and institutions of the Iranian government, such as the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution, that have led to the violations of the rights of the Iranian people," he pointed out.

"The president doesn't seem to have the authority or ability to achieve any changes or improvements in such cases."

Edited by: Srinivas Mazumdaru

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