Author : Kabir Taneja

Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Jul 08, 2024

Pezeshkian's victory may be a bitter pill for both the Ayatollah and the IRGC, but showing the success of elections is important for the Islamic Republic’s position in the region and the Islamic world

An unassuming ‘reformist’ takes centre stage in Iran

The snap elections in Iran called upon due to the untimely passing of the Islamic Republic’s President Ebrahim Raisi in a helicopter crash has sprung a surprise result. Pro-reforms candidate Masoud Pezeshkian won the run-off poll contested against hardliner Saeed Jalili in an electoral process that saw some of the lowest turnouts since 1979.

Pezeshkian, a doctor by profession, has taken over his new role at a time when there are multiple flashpoints for Iran to address—both domestic and international. “There is a bigger test ahead of us. I promise to listen to those who have not been heard. I’ll try to unite all branches of government,” he said at a ceremony at the mausoleum of Imam Khomeini in the south of Tehran.

Pezeshkian, a doctor by profession, has taken over his new role at a time when there are multiple flashpoints for Iran to address—both domestic and international.

All the President’s people? 

Politics in Iran is multi-layered and multi-faceted. For the state, Supreme Leader (Ayatollah) Ali Khamenei and the all-powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), a primary military entity which reports directly to the Ayatollah, have been the main power centres since the Islamic Revolution of 1979 which unseated the West-backed Pahlavi dynasty. However, the seat of power for Shia Islam has over the decades maintained an electoral process which showcases to the world that Iranians choose their own administration while simultaneously marketing itself as a more inclusive political structure compared to the monarchism prevalent in its Arab neighbourhood.

Pezeshkian’s victory is perhaps a bitter pill for both the Ayatollah and the IRGC. In these elections, only Pezeshkian was a reformist amongst the six vetted and selected candidates. His campaign projected a more inclusive view of Iran in the world, including cordial ties with the West, and perhaps even more importantly, a level of moderate support for more contested domestic issues such as women’s rights and the application of the hijab by the state’s morality police. Pezeshkian is not new to the electoral game, having tried and failed to get the top job in 2013 and 2021 respectively. This time, he seemingly had more vocal support from Iran’s young population with the country’s median age being only 32, as the economy suffers due to laggard growth and years of market isolation due to US-promoted sanctions. His victory remains notable as he defeated the hardliner’s preferred candidates—first, Mohammed Baber Qalibaf in the main elections, despite being supported by the IRGC, and now trumping the alternative, Saeed Jalili, in the run-offs.

In these elections, only Pezeshkian was a reformist amongst the six vetted and selected candidates.

It is important to remember that despite some prevailing narratives, even Pezeshkian’s victory is not a tectonic shift, and nor is he a disruptor. He is known to the establishment, without whom his candidacy would not have been cleared. 

Continuity and Iranian foreign policy

This forced change of guard in Iran came at a precarious time. Tehran’s ‘forward defence’ policy in search for deterrence has it embroiled directly in states such as Syria and Iraq, and support for the likes of Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the Houthis in Yemen as it looks to box in the interests of Israel and the United States (US) alike. “Muslim nations are the strategic depth of the Islamic Republic”, Khamenei said in a speech in 2008. In some ways, this strategy, while conceptually old, was aggressively strengthened under the leadership of assassinated IRGC leader and Quds Force (IRGC’s elite foreign operations wing) chief Qasem Soleimani, killed by a US drone strike in January 2020.

Pezeshkian has little experience in foreign policy, much like his predecessor Raisi. The approach and limits for the Iranian presidency are usually clearly marked when it comes to foreign-policy- and security-related matters. Domestic issues relating to governance, capacity building, public delivery of services, education, health, and maintenance of ideological supremacy take top priority. The presidency, in general, is inward looking. An anomaly was former president Hassan Rouhani’s valiant attempt to pull Iran back into the mainstream by cementing a deal with the P5+1 over its nuclear programme. The deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), was signed in 2015, only to be rescinded by the US in 2018 under the Trump administration. This decision by the then-US administration emboldened the hardliners in Iran and degraded the moderates and reformists. Within this context, Pezeshkian’s win is noteworthy.

Domestic issues relating to governance, capacity building, public delivery of services, education, health, and maintenance of ideological supremacy take top priority.

However, the core designs of Iranian foreign policy, controlled by the Ayatollah and perhaps increasingly even more so by the IRGC, are expected to remain unchanged. This includes Gaza, forward defence, and building alliances with China and Russia. Here, the new president will have limited sway. There are two reasons behind this: First, of course, is political by way of the consolidation of power by the Revolution put in place in 1979. Second, is more strategic, and has its roots in the Iran–Iraq war which took place between 1980 and 1988. While this conflict has been relegated to the history books, its impact on Iranian strategic thinking was pivotal as its vulnerabilities played out openly having to fight with Western military equipment without access to spares, ammunition, or serviceability—this is highlighted even today by examples such as Iranian Air Force continuing to fly US made F-14 fighter aircraft).

Much of what was learnt then, is applied today, with Tehran having to morph into a ‘survivalist state’ instead of a mainstream one within the existing global order. Even its hyped relations with partners for a new era of great power competition such as China and Russia are operated with the above-mentioned strategic considerations in mind. That is, never put all eggs in one basket, irrespective of whose basket that may be. To contextualise this, scholar Yun Sun recently argued that China would prefer the winning candidate to be “sufficiently loyal to the anti-West agenda to advance the strategic alignment between Iran and China in the region, but not someone who is so radical that he would push Iran over the nuclear threshold and risk a region-wide conflict with Israel and the US.”

Meanwhile, the India–Iran dynamic under Pezeshkian is also expected to continue a normal trajectory with no major shifts expected. Like every other leadership in Tehran, reformist or hardline, its outreach with New Delhi will continue to look towards further mutual developments in economy, security, and regional geopolitics.

The India–Iran dynamic under Pezeshkian is also expected to continue a normal trajectory with no major shifts expected.

Conclusion  

The expectations from the small percentage that took part in elevating Pezeshkian to power despite being surrounded by hardliners will be significant. For the Supreme Leader and the IRGC, despite this anomaly in results, showing the success of elections is important for the Islamic Republic’s own position in the region and within the Islamic world alike. Whether Pezeshkian can move the needle domestically towards more palatable and “moderate” societal and cultural policies is in all likeliness going to be his first and main challenge of the day. In the meantime, Iran’s foreign policy designs are expected to stay their course.


Kabir Taneja is a Fellow with the Strategic Studies Programme at the Observer Research Foundation 

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.

Author

Kabir Taneja

Kabir Taneja

Kabir Taneja is a Fellow with Strategic Studies programme. His research focuses on Indias relations with West Asia specifically looking at the domestic political dynamics ...

Read More +