Even if he loses, Pezeshkian provides much-needed hope to reformists

Published by the National

Iran has been in the throes of a presidential election campaign since Sunday, when the Guardian Council announced the final slate of candidates to run for the second-highest office in the land.

The Guardian Council, a panel of jurists and clerics appointed by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, decides who is allowed to contest in any of the country’s elections. Of the more than 80 current or former regime officials who applied to run, only six have been given the green light.

As expected, most of the approved candidates are conservative hardliners, with the top contenders being Parliament Speaker Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf and former national security adviser Saeed Jalili. Surprisingly however, Masoud Pezeshkian, the only reformist candidate in the shortlist, has quickly garnered support and now counts as a serious contender, even if he has a steep hill to climb.

A physician and an MP from the north-western city of Tabriz, Dr Pezeshkian has qualities that will surely appeal to many voters.

He has no serious corruption charges against him or his family. He can point to the fact that, as a heart surgeon, he would make a lot more money if he were to quit politics and return to private practice. He is also respected as a single parent who raised his children on his own after his wife died in an accident.

Dr Pezeshkian has political and administrative experience, having served under former president Mohammad Khatami as health minister more than two decades ago. Since 2008, he has stood out as a reformist MP in a conservative-dominated Parliament.

In the June 28 election, the soon-to-be septuagenarian will hope to get a sizeable number of votes from the country’s minority groups. He is of Azeri-Turkic heritage, as are about 15 million fellow Iranians, and was born to a Kurdish mother in the Kurdish-majority city of Mahabad and speaks the language.

The big question is, can he help revive Iran’s moribund reformist movement?

Eslahtalaban, as the movement is called, is nominally one of two informal schools that make up the official politics of the Islamic Republic (the other is Osoolgerayan, which consists of conservative “principlists”). But in recent years, the reformists have been driven out of almost every position of power, with the Guardian Council having barred them from most elections.

In 2009, Eslahtalaban held demonstrations to challenge the re-election of the then president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. It was a seminal moment in national politics, for that is when Mr Khamenei shed the public position of non-partisanship and openly backed Mr Ahmadinejad, a conservative. Iran’s security apparatus then violently cracked down on the movement, following which the main reformist parties were banned and several leaders were put on sham trials and sentenced to years in prison.

The movement has yet to recover from that blow. It hasn’t held the presidency since Mr Khatami stepped down in 2005 after two full terms, with its candidates repeatedly barred from running for office. What it has managed to do is survive and remain politically relevant. Rather than call for the overthrow of the regime, it has backed moderate candidates such as Hassan Rouhani, another two-term former president.

In recent years, however, the Guardian Council has outdone itself, primarily by disqualifying reformist candidates aiming to run for Parliament. This has spurred many within the movement to boycott the last two parliamentary elections.

In 2021, the Council barred the candidacy of all reformists except one, former central bank governor Abdolnaser Hemmati, who wasn’t considered a strong candidate. Mr Hemmati, though, finished third and garnered 8.5 per cent of the vote. Interestingly, one of the candidates to have been barred then was Dr Pezeshkian.

That he has been allowed to run for president a mere two years later could be a ploy on the part of the regime’s efforts to get out the vote.

The uncompetitive 2021 presidential election helped Mr Khamenei put his trusted candidate, Ebrahim Raisi, in power. But the regime’s support base narrowed down considerably and for the first time in a presidential election held since 1979, a majority of voters stayed home. Lacklustre turnout was also a theme during the 2020 and 2024 parliamentary elections, and something needed to be done about it.

It could be the case Mr Khamenei has calculated that Dr Pezeshkian is not strong enough to win the election but might generate enthusiasm among the reformist base enough to raise the overall voter turnout to above 50 per cent once again.

Dr Pezeshkian has already secured the resolute support of the Iranian Reformist Front, which brings together all the major reformist parties. IRF chairwoman Azar Mansouri said: “In this unequal scene, we will work for Dr Pezeshkian’s victory while also pursuing rights of all Iranians, including the right to a free, just and competitive elections.”

To his benefit, he will also be the main choice for centrists since the main moderate candidate, Ali Larijani, was barred from running.

The only other choice for centrist voters is Mostafa Pourmohammadi, who served as cabinet minister under both Mr Ahmadinejad and Mr Rouhani. But as a cleric who has long been associated with the regime’s judicial and security organs, his candidacy comes with baggage and few expect him to win.

Given that, Dr Pezeshkian has secured endorsements from Mr Rouhani’s Moderation and Development Party, as well as from key figures such as former vice president Eshaq Jahangiri and former foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

But endorsements from elders aren’t enough for Dr Pezeshkian to win. He needs to get out the vote, particularly by inspiring the mostly disillusioned citizenry. With hundreds of protesters having been killed during demonstrations in recent years, many Iranians have lost all hope in change.

The heart surgeon’s campaign has, so far, failed to tug at their heartstrings. In his first televised interview on Monday, he pledged to follow “the general policies set by the supreme leader” – not exactly a rousing call to those who need the motivation to cast their ballot.

Many of his supporters expressed their disappointment after watching the interview, including an IRF spokesperson who urged Dr Pezeshkian to “use a rhetoric in line with the expectations of the majority who are critical of the status quo”. He still has a chance to make amends in the upcoming televised debates.

Dr Pezeshkian’s chances of becoming the next president remain dim. Nonetheless, the very fact that he has been allowed to run has given some hope to Iran’s reformists. For a movement that’s been out of power for almost two decades, it’s not nothing.

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