July 19th, 2024

Reformist Pezeshkian beats hard-liner to win Iran presidential election, promising outreach to West

By Jon Gambrell And Amir Vahdat, The Associated Press on July 6, 2024.

Reformist candidate for the Iran's presidential election Masoud Pezeshkian clenches his fist after casting his vote as he is accompanied by former Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, left, at a polling station in Shahr-e-Qods near Tehran, Iran, Friday, July 5, 2024. Iranians are voting in a runoff election to replace the late President Ebrahim Raisi, who was killed in a May helicopter crash in the country’s northwest along with the foreign minister and several other officials. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) – Reformist candidate Masoud Pezeshkian won Iran’s runoff presidential election Saturday, besting hard-liner Saeed Jalili by promising to reach out to the West and ease enforcement on the country’s mandatory headscarf law after years of sanctions and protests squeezing the Islamic Republic.

Pezeshkian promised no radical changes to Iran’s Shiite theocracy in his campaign and long has held Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as the final arbiter of all matters of state in the country. But even Pezeshkian’s modest aims will be challenged by an Iranian government still largely held by hard-liners, the ongoing Israel-Hamas war in the Gaza Strip, and Western fears over Tehran enriching uranium to near-weapons-grade levels with enough of a stockpile to produce several nuclear weapons if it chose.

A vote count offered by authorities put Pezeshkian as the winner with 16.3 million votes to Jalili’s 13.5 million in Friday’s election. Overall, Iran’s Interior Ministry said 30 million people voted in an election held without internationally recognized monitors, representing a turnout of 49.6% – higher than the historic low of the June 28 first round vote but lower than other presidential races.

Supporters of Pezeshkian, a heart surgeon and longtime lawmaker, entered the streets of Tehran and other cities before dawn to celebrate as his lead grew over Jalili, a hard-line former nuclear negotiator. Pezeshkian later traveled to the mausoleum of the late Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, and addressed journalists in a chaotic event.

“In this election, I didn’t give you false promises. I did not lie,” Pezeshkian said. “It’s been many years after the revolution that we come to the podium, we make promises and we fail to fulfill them. This is the biggest problem we have.”

Pezeshkian’s win still sees Iran at a delicate moment, with tensions high in the Mideast and a looming election in the United States that could put any chance of a detente between Tehran and Washington at risk. Pezeshkian’s victory also wasn’t a rout of Jalili, meaning he’ll have to carefully navigate Iran’s internal politics as the doctor has never held a sensitive, high-level security post.

Government officials up to Khameni, the supreme leader, predicted higher turnout as voting got underway, with state television airing images of modest lines at some polling centers. However, online videos purported to show some polls empty while a survey of several dozen sites in Tehran saw light traffic and a heavy security presence on the streets.

Authorities counted 607,575 voided votes – which often are a sign of protest by those who feel obligated to cast a ballot but reject both candidates.

Khamenei praised the turnout Saturday despite what he alleged was a boycott campaign “orchestrated by the enemies of the Iranian nation to induce despair and a feeling of hopelessness.”

“I would like to recommend Dr. Pezeshkian, the elected president, put his trust in God, the Compassionate, and set his vision on high, bright horizons,” Khamenei added.

Voters expressed a guarded optimism.

“I don’t expect anything from him – I am happy that the vote put the brake on hard-liners,” said bank employee Fatemeh Babaei, who voted for Pezeshkian. “I hope Pezeshkian can return administration to a way in which all people can feel there is a tomorrow.”

Taher Khalili, a Kurdish-origin Iranian who runs a small tailor shop in Tehran, offered another reason to be hopeful while handing out candy to passersby.

“In the end, someone from my hometown and the west of Iran came to power,” Khalili said. “I hope he will make economy better for small businesses.”

Pezeshkian, who speaks Azeri, Farsi and Kurdish, campaigned on outreach to Iran’s many ethnicities. He represents the first president from western Iran in decades – something people hope will aid the county as those in the western part are considered more tolerant because of the ethnic and religious diversity in their area.

The election came amid heightened regional tensions. In April, Iran launched its first-ever direct attack on Israel over the war in Gaza, while militia groups armed by Tehran – such as the Lebanese Hezbollah and Yemen’s Houthi rebels – are engaged in the fighting and have escalated their attacks.

While Khamenei remains the final decision-maker on matters of state, Pezeshkian could bend the country’s foreign policy toward either confrontation or collaboration with the West.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, which has reached a detente with Iran, sent his congratulations to Pezeshkian that stressed his “keenness to develop and deepen the relations that bring our two countries and peoples together.” Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has relied on Iranian-made drones in his war on Ukraine, similarly congratulated Pezeshkian.

Responding to questions from The Associated Press, the State Department called the Iranian election “not free or fair” and noted that “a significant number of Iranians chose not to participate at all.”

“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 State Department added. “As the candidates themselves have said, Iranian policy is set by the supreme leader.”

However, it said it would pursue diplomacy “when it advances American interests.”

Candidates repeatedly touched on what would happen if former President Donald Trump, who unilaterally withdrew America from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018, won the November election. Iran has held indirect talks with President Joe Biden’s administration, though there’s been no clear movement back toward constraining Tehran’s nuclear program for the lifting of economic sanctions.

Pezeshkian’s win did see Iran’s rial strengthen Saturday against the U.S. dollar, trading 603,000 to $1, down from 615,000 on Thursday. The rial traded 32,000 to $1 at the time the 2015 nuclear deal was reached.

Though identifying with reformists and relative moderates within Iran’s theocracy during the campaign, Pezeshkian at the same time honored Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard, on one occasion wearing its uniform to parliament. He repeatedly criticized the United States and praised the Guard for shooting down an American drone in 2019, saying it “delivered a strong punch in the mouth of the Americans and proved to them that our country will not surrender.”

The late President Ebrahim Raisi, whose death in a May helicopter crash sparked the early election, was seen as a protégé of Khamenei and a potential successor as supreme leader.

Still, many knew him for his involvement in the mass executions that Iran conducted in 1988, and for his role in the bloody crackdowns on dissent that followed protests over the 2022 death of Mahsa Amini, a young woman detained by police over allegedly improperly wearing the mandatory headscarf, or hijab.

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Vahdat reported from Tehran, Iran. Nasser Karimi in Tehran contributed to this report.

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