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Iran's Pezeshkian brings hopes of moderation after routing hardline rival

Pezeshkian, who defeated hardline Saeed Jalili in Friday's second-round presidential vote, is someone world powers are likely to welcome, hoping he might pursue peaceful ways out of a tense standoff with Iran over its fast-advancing nuclear programme.
Last Updated : 06 July 2024, 04:25 IST

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Dubai: Iran's president-elect, low-profile moderate Masoud Pezeshkian, carries the hopes of millions of Iranians seeking less restrictions on social freedoms and a more pragmatic foreign policy.

Pezeshkian, who defeated hardline Saeed Jalili in Friday's second-round presidential vote, is someone world powers are likely to welcome, hoping he might pursue peaceful ways out of a tense standoff with Iran over its fast-advancing nuclear programme, analysts said.

Pezeshkian managed to win with a constituency - whose core was believed to be the urban middle class and young - that had been widely disillusioned by years of security crackdowns that stifled any public dissent from Islamist orthodoxy.

The 69-year-old cardiac surgeon has pledged to promote a pragmatic foreign policy, ease tensions over now-stalled negotiations with major powers to revive a 2015 nuclear pact and improve prospects for social liberalisation and political pluralism.

Under Iran's dual system of clerical and republican rule, the president cannot usher in any major policy shift on Iran's nuclear programme or support for militia groups across the Middle East, since Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei calls all the shots on top state matters.

However, the president can influence the tone of Iran's policy and he will be closely involved in selecting the successor to Khamenei, now 85.

Pezeshkian is faithful to Iran's theocratic rule with no intention of confronting the powerful security hawks and clerical rulers. In TV debates and interviews, he has promised not to contest Khamenei's policies.

"If I try but fail to fulfil my campaign promises, I will say goodbye to political work and not continue. There is no point in wasting our life and not being able to serve our dear people," Pezeshkian said in a video message to voters.

Resurfaced from quiescence after years of political isolation, the reformist camp led by former President Mohammad Khatami endorsed Pezeshkian in the election after the death of hardline President Ebrahim Raisi in a helicopter crash in May.

Pezeshkian's views offer a contrast to those of Raisi, a Khamenei protege who tightened enforcement of a law curbing women's dress and took a tough stance in now-moribund negotiations with major powers to revive the nuclear deal.

In 2018, then-U.S. President Donald Trump ditched the pact and reimposed sanctions on Iran. His move prompted Tehran to progressively violate the agreement's nuclear limits.

Limited power

Pezeshkian has vowed to revive the flagging economy, beset by mismanagement, state corruption and US sanctions.

As the powers of the elected president are circumscribed by those of Khamenei, many Iranians keen for political pluralism at home and an end to Iran's isolation abroad doubt the country's ruling theocracy would let Pezeshkian make major changes even if he tried.

"Pezeshkian might be able to bring some social freedoms. But he will be a weak president because Khamenei and his allies are much more powerful than the president," said Sohrab Hosseini, a 45-year-old businessman in Iran's Kish Island.

"I voted for him to prevent Jalili from winning."

As a lawmaker since 2008, Pezeshkian, an Azeri who supports the rights of fellow ethnic minorities, has criticised the clerical establishment's suppression of political and social dissent.

In 2022, Pezeshkian demanded clarification from authorities about the death of Mahsa Amini, a woman who died in custody after she was arrested for allegedly violating a law restricting women's dress. Her death sparked months of unrest across the country.

"We will respect the hijab law, but there should never be any intrusive or inhumane behaviour toward women," Pezeshkian said after casting his vote in the first round.

At a Tehran University meeting last month, responding to a question about students imprisoned on charges linked to 2022-23 unrest, Pezeshkian said "political prisoners are not within my scope, and if I want to do something, I have no authority".

During the Iran-Iraq war in 1980s, Pezeshkian, a combatant and physician, was tasked with the deployment of medical teams to the front lines.

He was health minister from 2001-5 in Khatami's second term.

Pezeshkian lost his wife and one of his children in a car accident in 1994. He raised his surviving two sons and a daughter alone, opting to never remarry.

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Published 06 July 2024, 04:25 IST

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