Reformist Pezeshkian Wins Iranian Presidency

Ellen Anevicius
Ellen Anevicius
Ellen Anevicius is the Editorial Operations Chief and Acting Middle East Desk Chief for Atlas News. She has a degree in Political Science from the University of Wisconsin. With extensive experience in South Asia and the Middle East, she brings nuanced analysis to the team and upholds the tenets of journalism across the newsroom - accuracy, integrity, and trusted editorial standards.

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The reformist dark horse candidate Masoud Pezeshkian has won the run-off election and will replace the late Ebrahim Raisi as President of Iran, the Associated Press reports. The run-off presidential election round on Friday pit centrist Pezeshkian against hardliner Saeed Jalili after none of the candidates were able to secure a simple majority of 50 percent required to win during the first round. Pezeshkian and Jalili occupy opposite ends of the Iranian political spectrum, with Pezeshkian campaigning on a platform of collaboration with the West, rather than confrontation, as the nation wrestles with a sinking economy, discontent among the population for the ruling clerical establishment, and tensions with Israel and the United States.

Voter Turnout Higher in Run-Off

As of 7:00 a.m. local time, Pezeshkian was announced the winner by Iran state media with just over 16 million of the more than 30 million ballots cast, or about 53 percent of the vote.

Similar to the first round of voting, officials extended the open times of polling stations throughout the evening, probably to encourage more voters. Turnout in the first round was the nation’s lowest in any presidential election since the Islamic Republic was established in 1979. This time, the voting extensions may have worked, with the Tehran Times reporting that 30 million Iranians voted—a fifty percent turnout. Although discontent and apathy may have played a role in the low turnout in the first round, undecided voters may have been galvanized by the reduction of the field to two candidates. In addition, while Pezeshkian may have initially benefitted from opposing votes being split among multiple hardliner candidates in the first round, not everyone who voted for mainstream conservative candidate Mohamed Baqer Ghalibaf switched their votes to Jalili.

The second round of voting identified a clear rift in the conservative bloc, with some indications of movement away from the uncompromising policies of Raisi that Jalili was certain to continue. In a shocking move, Sardar Mohsen Rashid, a founder and member of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and Sami Zazari Takarani, the man who led Ghalibaf’s campaign, both declared their support for the reformist Pezeshkian in the run-off, according to Khabar Online.

Strategy, or Miscalculation?

Pezeshkian’s inclusion by the clerical regime was a surprise to some, as candidates are selected by the establishment for their adherence to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s vision and rule. Pezeshkian’s inclusion was initially dismissed as symbolic only, meant to maintain a veneer of legitimacy in the elections, but never intended to win. It may never be known if Pezeshkian’s inclusion was intentional, or a miscalculation by the regime of the level of disenchantment and public anger following years of economic hardship and internal crackdowns.

Pezeshkian has criticized both the clerical elite and the regime’s handling of domestic unrest. Further, Pezeshkian has communicated a commitment to restarting a dialogue with the West to find a way to end the heavy sanctions levied on the Islamic Republic following the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear agreement.

Jalili, by contrast, was viewed as a recalcitrant among Western diplomatic circles and some critics called his hardline views on Iranian domestic issues, such as the mandatory headscarf, “Taliban-esque.” After casting his vote earlier on Friday, Jalili shouted to a forming crowd, “Raisi, your way continues!”

An Unclear Path for the Reformist

Although Raisi’s way may not continue entirely, as president, Pezeshkian will face hurdles internally and externally. First, Iranian presidents have historically not been particularly powerful on major policy decisions in Iran. Second, a president who advocates for policies supported by Khamenei and the IRGC can typically exercise more influence than one who seeks to alter the norm, making Pezeshkian a slight risk for the regime over hardliner candidates who would have been perceived as “faithful.” Third, given Pezeshkian’s vocal denunciation of the security forces’ bloody crackdown on protests in 2023 and commitment to expanding internet freedoms, his victory could serve as a revival of populist appetites for change and, combined with an already malcontent population, plunge Iran back into domestic upheaval.