“Role Exchange”… A New “Reformist” President in Iran Under the “Control of the Leader”

In a result that few expected, reformist candidate Masoud Pezeshkian, who called for moderate policies at home and improved relations with the West, succeeded in winning the Iranian presidency in the second round of the presidential elections against conservative candidate Saeed Jalili, who is supported by the hardline movement.

Pezeshkian, a 69-year-old heart surgeon, won 16.3 million votes to beat Jalili’s 13.5 million, in what some saw as a blow to the conservatives in Iran’s ruling establishment and a major victory for the relatively moderate reformist camp, which has been marginalized in recent years.

Turnout was about 50 percent, about 10 percentage points higher than in the first round, with about 30.5 million voters casting ballots, according to Iran’s Interior Ministry.

The first round of elections saw record low turnout as many Iranians boycotted in protest at the regime’s hardline policies.

While Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has broad powers in governing the country, analysts believe the next president will not be able to exert much influence over both domestic and foreign policy.

Hassan Radhi Hassan, director of the Ahwazi Center for Political and Strategic Studies, says that Pezeshkian’s rise came as a result of two main factors: “The first is the religious regime’s need for a reformist face in the next phase, because it believes that it is very likely that former US President Donald Trump will win the presidential elections.”

“Tehran fears the return of Trump’s policies of imposing severe sanctions and punishing the Iranian regime, and therefore allowed the arrival of a reformist president in order to soften positions and improve relations with the West in general,” Radi, who lives in London, told Alhurra.

The second factor is related to the internal situation in Iran, which is on the verge of exploding due to the worsening economic and social situation, according to Radhi.

Radhi believes that “the regime suffered from citizens’ reluctance to participate in the elections, and therefore Khamenei tried, by allowing a reformist president to win, to increase competition and raise the turnout in the elections.”

In his first statement after winning the election, Pezeshkian urged Iranians to stick with him on the “difficult path” he will take.

“To the dear Iranian people: The elections are over, and this is just the beginning of our work together. We have a difficult road ahead of us. It can only be smooth with your cooperation, compassion and trust,” Pezeshkian said in a post on the social media platform X.

Pezeshkian said during the election campaign that he realized that economic reform was closely linked to foreign policy, specifically the confrontation with the West over the nuclear program, and that he would negotiate to lift sanctions.

He also declared his opposition to the compulsory hijab law and stressed his desire to establish peaceful relations with the West.

As Iran’s second-highest official after the supreme leader, the president oversees economic policies and appoints a cabinet of ministers that includes key decision-makers in areas ranging from foreign affairs to the strategic oil industry.

But these decisions can be blocked by parliament and the Supreme Leader, who has the final say on policy decisions.

The president has little influence over security and military matters, which are controlled by Khamenei and the hardline Revolutionary Guards, meaning the election is unlikely to affect the country’s confrontational approach toward the United States and support for militant groups across the Middle East.

Ali Vaez, an Iran expert at the International Crisis Group, said in a post on the X platform that Pezeshkian’s victory “breaks the pattern of a series of national elections that have seen the conservative camp tighten its grip on all centers of power.”

However, “the conservatives continue to control other institutions in the state,” he said.

“The limited powers of the president mean that Pezeshkian will face an uphill battle to secure more social and cultural rights at home and diplomatic engagement abroad, which he stressed during his election campaign,” he added.

“Bezeshkian’s resilience is the reason he has survived and continued in the game when others have been sidelined,” he said.

He also commented, “The Islamic Republic lost the legitimacy test in the first round of elections… and the hardliners lost the popularity test in the second round.”

Guide control

It has been years since Iran allowed a reformist to run for president, which observers see as a sign of the pressure on the regime in Tehran, as the country suffers from a clear economic decline and strict decisions regarding wearing the hijab.

Elections are also subject to strict control, with all candidates having to obtain approval from the authorities.

Hassan Radhi explains that “the Supreme Leader in Iran is the one who controls everything in the country, and the statements he made after the results were announced prove that.”

“Khamenei set the broad guidelines for the winning president to follow and told him that he must follow the approach of the late President Ebrahim Raisi and that he must seek help from what he described as revolutionary and ideological youth in his government,” Radhi said.

In the days leading up to the vote, prominent politicians and clerics described Jalili as “delusional,” likened him to the Taliban in Afghanistan, and warned that his presidency would put the country on a collision course with the United States and Israel.

Many conservatives crossed party lines and voted for Pezeshkian, saying Jalili was too extreme and would deepen tensions at home.

Iranian writer and political analyst Hossein Royran believes that Pezeshkian’s victory is a clear indication of the freedom of elections in Iran.

“Everyone was saying that Jalili was the regime’s candidate and that his victory was guaranteed, but Pezeshkian’s rise gave great credibility to the elections,” Royran added to Alhurra.

Royran points out that “talking that everything is in Khamenei’s hands does not match reality, because Iran has a constitution and state institutions, and the Guide himself is subject to them and not the other way around,” as he put it.

“Iran is a state of institutions, and the president comes second to the Supreme Leader, and he has the ability to greatly influence Iran’s economic, political, and security policies,” Royran continues.

But Radhi disagrees with this argument and believes that “Khamenei wanted to send a message to the West that the Iranian regime is democratic and the people are the ones who elect their president.”

He concludes by saying, “It’s just a game of exchanging roles due to the internal and external crisis. They are bending over until the storm passes.”

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