Reformist at the helm: What can the world expect from Iran’s new president?

Political analysts discuss with RT how the election of President Masoud Pezeshkian will impact the Islamic Republic, the region and the world

Last week, it became clear that Iran’s conservative turn, which saw Ibrahim Raisi take power in August 2021, was over. Following the president’s tragic death in a helicopter crash in May, the reformist coalition’s sole candidate won snap elections. 

Iranians cast their votes in the first round of the presidential race at the end of June, but the winner could not be determined, prompting a runoff. On July 5, Iranians elected the moderate Masoud Pezeshkian with 53.6 percent of votes. The 69-year-old cardiac surgeon is expected to resign from his current post as a member of the Iranian parliament at the end of July ahead of an inauguration in August.

Much is expected from a man who pledged to unite a quite divided nation, solve Iran’s economic problems, ease tensions with the West triggered by the Islamic Republic’s drive for nuclear energy, and improve relations with regional and international players. But given the events that have affected Iran in recent years and mounting international pressure, will Pezeshkian’s presidency be as liberal as that of Hassan Rouhani, who held the post for eight years from 2013?

To understand how likely it is for the new president to achieve these goals, RT spoke to a number of political analysts and this is their take on what the future might hold for Iran.

Glitch or consistency?

RT: The first round of this race had the lowest turnout since the establishment of the Islamic Republic, prompting some to suggest that this was an indication that the people of Iran didn’t trust the system. How likely is it that Pezeshkian will rebuild that trust?

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Dr. Tohid Asadi, assistant professor at University of Tehran: Many observers within a substantial segment of the Iranian political establishment who discussed the elections in Iran considered Dr. Saeed Jalili as the favorite candidate. They thought he was holding a trump card in the run-off race. Nevertheless, the ultimate decision on Iran’s next president was determined by the collective will of the voters expressed at the ballot box. This is called democracy. In the run-off, the turnout increased by nearly 10 percent, and with Dr. Pezeshkian winning the election people are all increasingly hopeful about their role in shaping the destiny of their country. He is expected to focus on fostering national unity. 

RT: Mr. Pezeshkian takes on leadership of a country under immense international sanctions that have impacted the country’s economy. How likely is that he will tackle them?

Asadi: Dr. Pezeshkian and his team have the potential to lead talks with the West, to resolve the issues. However, it remains to be seen if the West, and the US in particular, is wise enough to sieze this opportunity. Additionally, it will be critically important to put self-sufficiency at the top of our priorities and at the same time to broaden the scope of foreign policy to include better trading relations with the Global South, regional players, Russia, China, and emerging markets.

RT: Mr. Pezeshkian has already stated that he would resume talks with the US over its nuclear program. How realistic is it for him to do that given objections among some elements at home?

Asadi: As for its nuclear program, Iran has never closed the door of negotiations and fulfilled all its commitments based on the deal that was signed back in 2015. For the time being, there is a clear air of mistrust pertaining to the US among all political elites in Iran, particularly after the Trump administration decided to unilaterally withdraw from the pact. The potential for the resumption of negotiations is more dependent on how Americans behave, rather than any other determinant back home.

Tohid Asadi

The Israel Question

RT: In his victory speech, Mr. Pezeshkian said that he was looking forward to establishing friendly relations with all nations. What does it mean for the US and potentially Israel? 

Asadi: Like any other country, Iran’s foreign policy is formulated within a highly complicated dynamism in which several actors and factors work to fulfill the national interests. Under the presidency of Dr. Pezeshkian, one might expect a new and an inclusive tone in Iranian foreign policy based on openness to engage diplomatically with countries worldwide, based on their behavior and goodwill. Yet, Dr. Pezeshkian’s stance will remain consistent with Iran’s longstanding position of non-recognition and opposition pertaining to a regime that brutally kills civilians on a daily basis.

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RT: We are hearing that the position of Mr. Pezeshkian on Israel will remain unaltered. If this is the case, is Iran on the brink of a full-fledged war with Israel?

Mkhaimer Abuseada, associate professor of political sciences at Al Azhar University, currently residing in Cairo: In Iran, these matters of peace and war are not in the hands of presidents. These issues are decided by the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and at the end of the day, I doubt that he is interested in a war with Israel, which could grow even wider.

Even more so, from what I have been gathering, Iran is not willing to see any of its regional allies in an open confrontation with Israel, simply because Iran would not want to see its partners going through the suffering from western sanctions and the deterioration of daily life that it has experienced.

I would like to remind you about the escalation that took place between Israel and Iran in mid April. Although the two countries confronted each other, there were many indications that the Iranians informed the US of their retaliation against Israel way before it actually happened, because they wanted to make sure that this repraisal would not be perceived by Washington as a declaration of war against Israel.

Likewise, the confrontation between Hezbollah and Israel. What’s happening between them is not a war. Rather, it is a very calculated escalation in which neither side is interested in a full-fledged conflict. All Hezbollah is trying to do is distract Israel in the north and easing the suffering of the Palestinians in Gaza. Of course that doesn’t mean that mistakes -- on either side -- cannot occur. And if they do, they might drag the region into a war. But none of the sides wants it, and there is also the Americans -- with their mediator Amos Hochstein -- who are trying to diffuse the tensions.

Mkhaimer Abuseada

RT: What about the Palestinians: are we going to see more support for their cause under the presidency of Mr. Pezeshkian? 

Abuseada: As I said before, a president in Iran, whether he is a reformist or a conservative, will not have a big impact on the Palestinian issue, because the support for the Palestinian resistance, especially for Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, comes from Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, and not from the government. That’s what I know, and that’s what has been happening for many years 

It is the Revolutionary Guard that gives these Palestinian factions the military support, the financial assistance, and the training. So these issues have nothing to do with the President. Pezeshkian will focus more on Iran’s internal issues, such as improving the country’s economy or on foreign relations especially with the West that has been unhappy with Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

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Persians and Arabs

RT: Apart from the West, Iran will also need to keep on improving relations with regional players, especially with Saudi Arabia, ties with which have seen multiple ups and downs. How likely for Mr. Pezeshkian to achieve that?

Khaled Batarfi, professor at Faisal University, Saudi Arabia:

In Iran, the real power lies with Imam Ali Khamenei and no one else. He chooses, who runs for elections and who gets elected. He controls all the sources of power; and he is the one who takes decisions on all national and security related issues. 

So it was him, who supported the notion of improving relations with Saudi Arabia. And it was him, who stood behind the nuclear program of the Islamic Republic. He is the ultimate source of power, and it makes no difference whether the president is a moderate or a conservative. Raisi, for example, was a rightist and yet he was the one who made peace with Riyadh. 

Khaled Batarfi

Therefore, I believe that the course that was started by Raisi will continue. Iran will seek to strengthen the relationship with Saudi Arabia and will try to alter the course of conflicts with the West and Israel. We can see signs of solutions already, whether with Hamas and Israel heading to a potential agreement, or with Hezbollah and the Houthis now saying that they would lay down arms if the conflict in Gaza ceases. 

So I’m carefully optimistic about the near future. I believe all issues will be resolved not because of the new president in Iran, but because the Supreme Leader of the country decided so.