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Pezeshkian has a strong mandate – and a slew of problems

Masoud Pezeshkian Morteza Nikoubazl via Reuters Connect
Iran's new president Masoud Pezeshkian has received endorsements from his predecessors and congratulations from Saudi Arabia and the UAE

It was not supposed to be this way. Masoud Pezeshkian, the sole reformist candidate, has won the second round of Iranian presidential elections to replace Ebrahim Raisi, and the fears of conservatives in the Iranian regime have come to pass.  

Conventionally, conservative candidates withdraw at the last minute ahead of a first round of voting, leaving one of their number to face off against a reformist.

Turnout is higher than it would otherwise be because there is a semblance of competition – but the hardliner wins as support coalesces around them. The regime is bolstered.

But in the first round on June 28 egos came into play, the conservative vote was split and reformists sensed opportunity in the second round held last Friday.   

Since 1979, Ali Khamenei, the 85-year-old supreme leader and before him Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, have encouraged elections. Khomeini needed to distinguish himself from the rule of the authoritarian Shah.

But votes in Iran have seen increasingly low levels of participation as the population has grown disillusioned. Reformists largely boycotted the presidential vote in 2021 while parliamentary elections in March saw a turnout of only 41 percent.  

Pezeshkian, a surgeon and former health minister who was endorsed by Mohammad Khatami and Hassan Rouhani, his reformist and centrist predecessors, now has a strong mandate.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE were among the first to send congratulations. Iranians have shown a consistent preference for reformists and for prioritising domestic issues over foreign adventures. 

In the campaign – complete with TV debates – Pezeshkian stressed personal integrity, condemned coercion over women’s dress and called for constructive relations with the West. His supporters repeatedly described their conservative opponents as Taliban. 

But Khamenei has experience in handling his presidents. He succeeded in discrediting and sidelining Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in his second term as president when he became too popular and a loose cannon (at the same time).  

Pezeshkian faces formidable problems. Inflation is high at an annualised 37 percent. Water is running scarce because of a single-minded pursuit of agricultural self-sufficiency. 

Although relations with China, India and in particular Russia are good, they are transactional. An expansionist Russia occupied much of northern Iran a little over a century ago. Iranian GDP per capita, constrained by decades of sanctions, is little more than $5,000. 

Gas is wasted via cheap pricing. A more confident regime would tell its people that they must pay the economic costs of recovery. However, rises in gasoline prices in 2019 sparked widespread rioting over perceptions that favoured groups were immune.

The good news for the incoming government is that oil exports are at a five-year high of 1.7 million barrels per day. 

A new incumbent may, though, have to deal with a less accommodating US president. In 2018 Donald Trump tore up the Joint Collective Plan of Action and imposed “maximum pressure” sanctions, which rapidly constricted oil exports and caused foreign exchange reserves to plummet. 

Expect much negotiating with the hardliner-dominated parliament over the appointment of ministers.

In the campaign, Pezeshkian was forced to concede that he would appoint Abbas Araghchi, a regime insider, rather than the more dynamic Mohammad Javad-Zarif as foreign minister. The back-and-forth with parliament over approval of ministers occupied the Rouhani and, before that, the Khatami governments. 

The conventional wisdom has it that the supreme leader and other hardline elements supervise foreign policy including the nuclear enrichment programme. The idea is that the supreme leader sets the tram-lines and the president delivers within the tracks.

Yet Hassan Rouhani worked out how to institute negotiations with the international community over the nuclear file and arrived at the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

The result? An unfreezing of Iranian assets and a significant easing of sanctions which, among other things, enabled the purchase of modern civilian aircraft to replace – only partially – the fleet of ageing deathtraps. 

A farm in Fars province. Aiming for agricultural self-sufficiency is placing strain on Iran's water suppliesUnsplash/Erfan Parhizi
A farm in Fars province. Aiming for agricultural self-sufficiency is placing strain on Iran's water supplies

Look also for the release of foreign prisoners – or, more accurately, hostages. At least a dozen foreigners, many of them dual-nationals, are held by Iran on arbitrary grounds. 

Above all, the hardliners have to tread carefully. The six weeks that passed between the death of Raisi in a helicopter crash on May 19, and the first round of voting left them with too little time to prepare. 

Raisi was one of two front-runners to succeed Khamenei, who is ailing, as supreme leader. The other is Mojtaba, Khamenei’s son.

Finding a suitable candidate is going to take time and is likely to be the focus of intense jockeying among the elite. The process is more opaque than the emergence of a new pope or elevation of a secretary-general of the Chinese communist party.  

The Khamenei dispensation is significantly weakened. A new incumbent as rahbar will have to confront – or emerge from -- the web of patronage involving the bonyads, the charitable and religious entities that control much of the economy. 

Or will it be a coronation?

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