What Iran’s new reformist president means for foreign policy

Fereshteh Sadeghi, The Cradle, July 8, 2024 — 

In a dramatic political turnaround, Iranians have chosen reformist Masoud Pezeshkian as their 9th president, sparking curiosity about possible shifts in foreign policy for eastward-facing, post-Raisi Iran.

On 5 July, the race for Iran’s top political job concluded as heart surgeon and reformist Masoud Pezeshkian emerged as the country’s 9th president after a runoff election against his conservative rival Saeed Jalili.

Iran’s Interior Ministry reports that 30,530,157 Iranians cast votes in the election – a turnout of 49.8 percent of eligible voters. Pezeshkian secured 16,384,403, while Jalili received 13,538,179 votes.

Notably, Pezeshkian’s 53.6 percent share of the votes makes him the second president with the lowest percentage of votes, following fellow reformist Hassan Rouhani, who won in 2013 with only 50.7 percent.

A reformist championed by minorities

Pezeshkian represents Iran’s Reform Front, a political movement that came into existence in 1997 with the presidency of Mohammad Khatami. He also enjoys the support of the Moderate faction headed by former president Rouhani.

Despite their popularity in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Reformists never repeated their victories in the 1997, 1998, and 2001 polls, becoming a political minority in the following two decades. Pezeshkian’s 16.3 million votes, less than Khatami’s 20 million in 2001, places him in a precarious position, especially as he owes his win to Iran’s ethnic and religious minorities.

Pezeshkian, whose Iranian parents are ethnically Azeri and Kurdish, is the first president of neither the country’s Fars ethnic majority nor the Farsi-speaking industrial provinces in central Iran. 

His electoral lead was bolstered by the mobilization of ethnic Iranian Turks or Azeris in the northwestern provinces of East Azerbaijan, West Azerbaijan, Zanjan, and Ardebil. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has called the president-elect a “Turk” and expressed hope that his ethnic roots and proficiency in the Turkish language will bolster Iran–Turkiye ties.

A similar trend was observed in the mainly Sunni-inhabited provinces of Sistan-Baluchestan, Golestan, and Kurdistan, in which his maternal Kurdish background put him in the lead in the Kurdish provinces of Ilam and Kermanshah. 

In contrast to these regions that favored Pezeshkian, provinces such as Isfahan, Qom, and several southern provinces preferred Jalili. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the late former president Ebrahim Raisi were born and raised in Khorasan; Rouhani and principalist Mahmoud Ahmadinejad hailed from Semnan, and Khatami from Yazd. Late President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was born in Kerman. 

Transition and cabinet formation

Iran has been without a president for more than seven weeks since Raisi’s passing, and Vice President Mohammad Mokhber has been administering the government, a task he will likely continue for at least four more weeks.

Pezeshkian is still a parliamentary lawmaker and must resign from his seat with the approval of the Majlis before taking his oath of office. The Iranian parliament is scheduled to discuss the resignation in late July, and if approved, Pezeshkian will be sworn in before the Majlis and receive his four-year mandate from Ayatollah Khamenei.

Only then will he chair Raisi’s cabinet while introducing his own cabinet lineup for a vote of confidence, with the new government expected to take the helm in September.

Among his first tasks, the Iranian president must assemble a team of 40 key officials, including 19 ministers, a vice president, and 11 deputy presidents, covering areas like Women and Family Affairs, Administrative Affairs, the Atomic Energy Organization, and the Budget and Planning Organization.

Additionally, the president must appoint a chief of staff, a head of presidential office, a spokesman, a secretary, and several aides.

The Iranian Constitution requires the Supreme Leader’s approval for four critical ministers: Defense, Intelligence, Interior, and Foreign Affairs. However, presidents often consider the leader’s input for other ministries, including Education, Culture and Islamic Guidance, and Science, Research, and Technology.

Women in the Pezeshkian administration

In Iran’s political circles, it is said that senior ayatollahs in the holy city of Qom are the main obstacle to women holding ministerial posts.

Yet defying the trend, former president Ahmadinejad appointed several women as deputies and even selected a female minister. In 2009, gynecologist Dr Marzieyh Vahid-Dastjerdi became the first post-revolution woman to head a ministry. However, disagreements with Ahmadinejad led to her dismissal three years later. 

His successor, the reformist Rouhani, did not appoint a female minister. Instead, he selected two deputies for Family and Women Affairs, a deputy for Legal Affairs, and a third woman as an aide for citizenship rights.

Similarly, Raisi did not appoint a female minister during his short presidency. He did, however, appoint a woman as deputy president for Family and Women Affairs and an aide for Human Rights and Social Freedoms.

To compensate for the lack of female ministers, Raisi ordered his ministers to employ more women in managerial positions, resulting in 25.2 percent of high and medium-level managerial posts being occupied by women.

President-elect Pezeshkian has not mentioned women in his cabinet, so it remains to be seen how many ministerial positions he will offer to women. One thing is certain: the number of female ministers in his upcoming cabinet will be a litmus test of his sincerity regarding women-related issues, such as the Islamic Hijab or the morality police, discussed during presidential debates.

New president, new foreign policy?

During his campaign, Pezeshkian expressed a willingness to shift Iranian foreign policy, review relations with Russia, and restore ties with the US. He even accused his conservative rivals of thwarting efforts to resolve the nuclear standoff between Iran and the west.

His comments were immediately answered by Khamenei who lambasted some politicians for “thinking all roads lead to the US as if Iran cannot progress without clinging onto this or that power.”

London-based scholar of Middle Eastern studies, Talal Mohammad, doesn’t expect a major change in the status quo, especially in the immediate future. He tells The Cradle:

The president-elect does not possess the authority to initiate talks with the west. Even if he were given a mandate – which is unlikely – he would struggle to meet the demands set by the P5+1 [countries], particularly those of the United States.

According to Mohammad, another headache for Pezeshkian’s government is Donald Trump’s looming US presidency and the return of his “maximum pressure policy” vis-à-vis Tehran.

In the event of Trump’s return, we might witness a reversion to the Rouhani-Trump dynamics. Trump is known for his affinity for strong, authoritarian leaders like Putin and Xi, and his approach tends to favor power and pressure. A moderate president with a more conciliatory stance, such as Pezeshkian, would likely face increased pressures and demands for concessions from Iran.

With significant sunset clauses expiring soon and in January 2026, including the so-called “snapback mechanism,” Mohammad predicts “excessive pressure from Trump against an Iranian administration that prefers pragmatism over hardline reciprocity.”

Tehran-based Political Science lecturer Keyhan Barzegar caveats this by saying that although Iran’s Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) and Khamenei determine the direction of the country’s foreign policy, the president still maintains some flexibility on these matters – much like Rouhani did during the 2015 nuclear negotiations:

The president can influence how negotiations are conducted between Iran and its regional or international partners. Therefore, Pezeshkian must find common ground between policies mapped out by the SNSC and the method his government uses to implement them.

According to Barzegar, “Iran now faces big powers who either request a hefty price for transferring technology or invest in Iran or seek a concession from the Iranian side to remove sanctions.” He further advises Pezeshkian to add to Iran’s strategic importance in the West Asia region by advocating a policy of “[regional] stability” which can rapidly galvanize widespread global support:

In this way, Eastern and Western powers would understand Iran’s strategic significance and this understanding would lead to an ease in sanctions or an increase in foreign investment.

In his post-election message, Khamenei advised Pezeshkian “to put his trust in God and set his vision on high horizons, following Martyr Raisi’s path.”

Considering the supreme leader’s stance, and despite having former foreign minister Javad Zarif by his side as a signal to the world and domestic voters about his diplomatic intentions, Pezeshkian almost certainly understands that his government will have limited maneuvering space on the international stage. He will, therefore, likely follow the foreign policy outlined by the state and not one urged by his renowned advisor. 

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