This is what we can expect from the new president


Lerato Khumalo

The moderate candidate narrowly defeated his arch-conservative rival. Massoud Peseschkian has announced reforms, but the president has little power in Iran.

Iran is facing a possible change in policy following the election victory of the moderate presidential candidate Massoud Peseschkian. The former health minister won 53.7 percent of the vote against his ultra-conservative challenger Said Jalili, as the spokesman for the electoral authority in Tehran announced this morning. Given the complex political situation and powerful interest groups in Iran, however, it is unclear to what extent a significant change of course can actually be expected from the runoff winner Peseschkian.

State television showed images of supporters celebrating the 69-year-old’s election victory with honking in the early hours of the morning. In the capital Tehran, however, the reactions were initially muted.

Around 61 million people were called upon on Friday to choose between Peseshkian and Jalili in the second round of voting. The Interior Ministry extended the opportunity to vote several times until late in the evening. Ultimately, a good 16.4 million eligible voters chose the moderate candidate Peseshkian, and around 13.5 million chose Jalili.

As was the case with this year’s parliamentary election, the weeks before the vote were marked by conspicuous indifference. In the first round, this was reflected in a historically low voter turnout of around 40 percent. In the second round, turnout reached 49.8 percent. The early election followed the death of incumbent Ebrahim Raisi, who died in a helicopter crash in May. His almost three-year reign was marked by great political repression, waves of protests and a deteriorating economic situation.

Peseschkian comes from the northwest of the country. During the first Gulf War with neighboring Iraq, he studied medicine and also served on the front lines for a while. After the war, he continued his work as a doctor and made a career as a heart surgeon in the metropolis of Tabriz.

During the election campaign, the rather inconspicuous politician campaigned for a new relationship of trust between the government and the people, because most Iranians are extremely disappointed with politics after failed attempts at reform. Like many other politicians from the reform camp, Peseschkian called for an improvement in relations with the West, also in order to open up the country and boost the ailing economy. With his efforts to be approachable and the campaign slogan “for Iran”, Peseschkian wanted to make it clear that he was committed to the people.

It is unclear to what extent he is willing and able to keep this promise. Peseschkian expressed his unconditional loyalty to religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final say in all strategic matters and is the most powerful man in the Islamic Republic.

During Mohammed Khatami’s second presidency (2001-2005), Peseschkian already gained government experience as Minister of Health. Despite his moderate rhetoric, he backed the powerful Revolutionary Guard, Iran’s elite military, and praised the most recent drone and missile attack on arch-enemy Israel in April. In TV debates, he described himself as a conservative politician who, however, believes reforms are necessary.

Since the revolution of 1979, Iran’s political system has combined republican and theocratic elements. However, there are no free elections: the so-called Guardian Council, a powerful Islamic control body, always checks candidates for their suitability. This time, the Guardian Council only allowed six of the 80 presidential candidates to run. Two of them withdrew before the first round of voting.

Unlike in many other countries, the president in Iran is not the head of state. Actual power is concentrated in the hands of the religious leader, who has been Khamenei since 1989. The Revolutionary Guards have also expanded their political and economic influence in recent decades.

During the election campaign, the candidates debated mainly ways to overcome the serious economic crisis in the country. Because of its controversial nuclear program, Iran is subject to international sanctions and is largely cut off from the global financial system. The country needs billions in investments. The candidates also discussed domestic political issues, cultural policy and dealings with the West.

Most Iranians, especially young people, have now lost faith in major domestic political changes. Reforms of the political system are not possible, they often say resignedly. Some activists, such as the imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize winner Narges Mohammadi, called for a boycott before the presidential election.

The death of the young Kurdish woman Jina Masa Amini in autumn 2022 sparked nationwide protests against the Islamic system of rule. There have been no major street demonstrations since then, probably also out of fear of violent repression. However, disappointment is omnipresent. Many educated Iranians with good degrees want to leave the country.