Iran Elects President Who Wants to Revive Nuclear Talks With West

(Bloomberg) -- Masoud Pezeshkian, a 69-year-old heart surgeon who wants to restart talks with the US over the landmark nuclear deal, was voted president of Iran after an election that underscored major challenges facing the country at home and abroad.

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Pezeshkian beat hard-line Islamist Saeed Jalili, 58, by almost 3 million votes in a runoff where the turnout of 49.8% was only marginally better than last week’s first round, according to officials.

It was among the lowest ever recorded for a presidential vote in Iran, highlighting the malaise and distrust in the political system overseen by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The US State Department called the low turnout a result of elections that were “not free or fair.”

As a reformist, Pezeshkian will be widely expected to seek improved relations with the West with a view to removing sanctions that have long held back the economy. He’ll also look to improve living standards for millions of middle-class Iranians who have been pushed into poverty, in part due to chronic mismanagement of state finances.

“I haven’t made any false promises to you. I haven’t said anything that I won’t be able to act on or that will later amount to a lie,” Pezeshkian said in a victory speech made at the mausoleum of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini on Saturday night and shown on state TV.

“The competition is over,” he said, addressing Jalili. “The time has come for friendship for Iran.”

But his ability to affect meaningful change will be restricted by a political system dominated by hard line institutions in which ultimate power rests with Khamenei.

“His victory certainly offers an opening for the West,” said Ali Vaez, director of the Iran Project at the Washington-based International Crisis Group. “Any future talks will be tough because even if the barriers of misunderstanding have been lowered, the walls of mistrust remain high.”

‘Viable Interlocutor’

One of Pezeshkian’s key pledges is to revive a landmark 2015 nuclear deal that was brokered between Iran and world powers, including the US. The agreement lifted sanctions on the Islamic Republic in exchange for strict limits and close regulation of its atomic activities.

The accord was left in tatters when then-US President Donald Trump withdrew in 2018, instigating a more comprehensive sanctions regime on Iran that remains in place. And with Trump challenging Joe Biden in November’s US presidential election, his “maximum pressure” policy against the Islamic Republic could return.

“It is hard to make any serious progress before the US elections in November,” Vaez said. “But the West now has a viable interlocutor in Tehran.”

A US State Department spokesman said that the elections will not have a significant impact on its approach to Iran, though the US remains “committed” to diplomacy when it advances American interests.

No Change

“We have no expectation these elections will lead to fundamental change in Iran’s direction or more respect for the human rights of its citizens,” the spokesman said in a statement. “As the candidates themselves have said, Iranian policy is set by the Supreme Leader.”

Pezeshkian’s other challenges include the handling of Iran’s conflict with Israel, which has reached perilous levels in recent months. The two countries almost went to war after trading missiles in April, and tensions remain high due to the ongoing war in Gaza between Israel and Hamas, which is backed by Iran, and Lebanon-based Hezbollah, another allied militia.

Iran has seen large, violent protests in recent years against the religious establishment and Khamenei, leading to more suppressive measures against political dissent, while moderate and reformist voices have been marginalized from politics.

That’s what makes Pezeshkian’s election both surprising and potentially fragile. He was the only reformist candidate on a ballot of hard liners and his election underscores how little enthusiasm there is for the ultra-conservative and often radical views that dominate Iran’s state institutions, including the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

‘Cards Stacked’

“Pezeshkian unfortunately is really going to be a lone figure working in a system and with a set of cards that is stacked against him,” said Sanam Vakil, director of the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House.

The hope is that he’ll be able to “obtain the Supreme Leader’s support to build an environment that is more inviting and open inside the country to give people breathing room against repressive policies,” Vakil said.

Pezeshkian will be expected to address fierce opposition to the harsh treatment of women at the hands of security forces and strict laws on their clothing. That’s something that his reformist and moderate predecessors have mostly failed to achieve, because so much of Iran’s policy is ultimately decided by unelected bodies like the judiciary or Khamenei himself.

Pezeshkian’s election showed that Iranians “consistently vote in favor of reform,” said Vakil.

He’s the first non-cleric since Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to be elected president and his almost clean-shaven face and straightforward style emphasize his differences from the religious elite.

While he’s seen as a modern and highly educated man, he is also deeply religious. His frequent use of English business jargon in televised debates was balanced by recitations of the Quran, winning him support from more conservative voters.

The West and the US should “reach out and find opportunities to engage the Iranian president and find incremental areas where progress and diplomacy can reduce tensions,” Vakil said.

--With assistance from Alicia Diaz.

(Updates with Pezeshkian’s first statement after being elected, US State Department’s comments.)

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