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Reformist candidate Masoud Pezeshkian shakes up Iran presidential election

Masoud Pezeshkian

A wave of optimism has swept over Iran’s political reformists after a representative from the camp was cleared to run against several hardline candidates in this month’s presidential election. Masoud Pezeshkian, a 69-year-old surgeon and member of parliament, was the surprise choice on the list of eligible candidates released over the weekend by the Guardian Council, the hardline-dominated body that has to approve all nominations for the presidency. Pezeshkian, a former health minister, was not originally viewed as a leading reformist candidate, but he had gained admirers for his openness, willingness to criticise the Islamic republic’s hardline policies, and commitment to justice and equality.

His “for Iran” campaign has called for a new era of relations between the regime and the population, and for the widespread “mistrust” of politicians to be addressed via a process of national “reconciliation”.  “Pezeshkian will be the phenomenon in this presidential election,” said Mohammad-Sadegh Javadi-Hesar, a reformist politician. “Iranian society is incredibly disillusioned and has been waiting for a major development. I’m very optimistic that people will see Pezeshkian as the one.”

The Guardian Council blocked senior reformists from running in the 2021 vote that was won by Ebrahim Raisi, whose death in a helicopter crash last month forced the snap election on June 28. Few observers had expected the regime led by supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to change strategy and allow reformers on to the ballot paper this time, but the addition of Pezeshkian has shaken up the contest.

Whether this was a conscious decision to add variety to the race and encourage turnout, or a calculation that a mid-ranking reformist would not be able to garner sufficient support to win, is a matter of debate. However, Pezeshkian has already been endorsed by Es’haq Jahangiri, a reformist former first vice-president who was disqualified from the vote by the Guardian Council, and Javad Zarif, a former foreign minister who negotiated the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers. Mohammad Khatami, the reformist former president, is expected to do the same. Supporters of Ali Larijani, a senior conservative also barred from running in the election who had moved closer to moderate forces, have joined up with the Pezeshkian campaign in some cities, analysts say. Other candidates in the six-man race include Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, speaker of parliament and a former Revolutionary Guard commander who is seen by many as the frontrunner; Alireza Zakani, the mayor of Tehran; and Saeed Jalili, a former nuclear negotiator who represents the most hardline wing of the regime. Analysts also say Pezeshkian’s background as a Koran teacher and reciter of the Nahj-ul-Balaghah, a key text for Shia Muslims, could make him an acceptable candidate for other segments of society, including traditional conservatives.

Mohammad-Ali Abtahi, a former reformist vice-president, suggested that this month’s poll could resemble the 1997 vote when Khatami was the surprise winner, or the 2013 election won by the centrist Hassan Rouhani on a promise to sign the nuclear deal. That accord failed when then-President Donald Trump pulled the US out and imposed tough sanctions, striking a massive blow to Iran’s moderate and reformist politicians.
One regime insider said Iran’s leadership was conscious of the need for a high participation rate to show that the Islamic republic had public legitimacy. Raisi’s 2021 victory was tarnished by the lowest turnout in any Iranian presidential poll, at just 48 per cent. Experts said Pezeshkian needed at least a 60 per cent turnout to have a chance. “Pezeshkian’s supporters are expected to be from the intellectual and business communities, as well as breadwinners in families who feel crushed under economic pressure,” Abtahi said. “The youth, however, still remain distant from the polling stations. But things can change up to the very last minute on polling day.” The regime insider also insisted that Khamenei and the Guards could work with Pezeshkian if he upset the odds and won. “The country needs a president who can engage with the world and, if necessary, enter into serious talks with the US,” the insider said. “Pezeshkian is a moderate character and a good compromise candidate for the Islamic republic.”

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