Masoud Pezeshkian: Iran’s new president

Published in Majalla

Earlier this year, Iran was headed to its scheduled parliamentary elections. As has become common in recent years, the elections were severely restricted. Under the Islamic Republic, polls have never been free and fair, and a vetting body called the Guardian Council, whose members give their primary fealty to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, decides who gets to run.

However, the polls have often featured genuine competition between the regime’s three factions: reformists, centrists, and conservatives (also called hardliners). As of late, most reformists and even centrists have been denied a run.

When the list of candidates permitted to run was announced, one big gap was clear: Masoud Pezeshkian, a reformist MP since 2008 and the former First Deputy Speaker of the Majlis had been disqualified. The regime appeared to say that even an MP like Pezeshkian—who had been careful never to get to confront Khamenei directly—had no place.

However, it wasn’t just about Pezeshkian; many others were also disqualified. With the Iranian Reformist Front (IRF) boycotting the elections, it appeared that the sun was setting on this political project, which had started in 1997 with the election of Mohammad Khatami as president—hitherto the only reformist ever to hold this office.

But Pezeshkian appealed, and after an intervention by Khamenei himself, he was allowed to run. Although the majority of Iranians didn’t vote in the Majlis polls in March, Pezeshkian was able to be re-elected to his seat in the Azeri-majority city of Tabriz in northwestern Iran. Few could have guessed that not only was his political career not over but he’d be elected president of Iran in the space of a few months. But such were the course of events.

In May, the hardliner president Ebrahim Raisi died in a helicopter crash following a return from a trip to border areas with the Republic of Azerbaijan. In the hastily organised presidential elections, the Guardian Council made a slight U-turn, allowing one of the three candidates introduced by the IRF to run: Pezeshkian.

Under the willy leadership of its female president, Azar Mansoori, IRF had precisely run the MP from Tabriz because they knew he could get approved. They then enthusiastically joined the electoral fray after years in the political wilderness. Khatami endorsed Pezeshkian, as did Mehdi Karroubi, a former parliamentary speaker who has been under house detention since 2011 for his role in leading mass protests.

Despite most Iranians not voting, Pezeshkian topped the first round of the poll on June 24 and made it to the run-offs on July 7, where he quashed his fundamentalist rival, Saeed Jalili. Only 40% of Iranians had turned out for the vote in the first round. But in the run-offs, the fear of a Jalili presidency sent many more to the polls and helped secure the deal for Pezeshkian. It has been a stunning journey for this 69-year-old physician from northwestern Iran.

Mixed like Iran itself

Pezeshkian got an especially high number of voters from his fellow Turkic Azeri Iranians, concentrated in the northwest, and some have attributed this to an ‘ethnic vote.’ But Pezeshkian’s background—like many Iranians—is quite mixed, which also helped him reach out to many of his fellow citizens, regardless of their ethnicity.

He was born in 1954 in the Kurdish city of Mahabad to a Kurdish mother and an Azeri father. He attended elementary school in the city and learned Kurdish quite well. Throughout his political life, he has often campaigned for Kurdish politicians and also repeatedly spoke Kurdish on the campaign trail. In the presidential debates, he championed ethnic minority issues and particularly protested the lack of inclusion for Sunni Iranians (most Iranian Kurds are Sunnis, as are almost all Baluch Iranians in the southeast).

Pezeshkian went to an agricultural high school in the famously mixed city of Urmiah in Iran’s West Azerbaijan province for his secondary education. In 1973, for his mandatory military service, he went all the way to the other end of Iran, serving in Zabol in southeastern Iran. During the presidential debates, he attracted attention by speaking of his years there and how he could afford to buy a motorcycle with the paltry income of a conscript, something that is unimaginable in today’s Iran. In basic words, he reminded everybody of how Iran was more prosperous under the Shah before the 1979 revolution.

Deciding he wanted to be a doctor, Pezeshkian returned to high school after finishing his two years of conscription. In 1976, he made it to the medical college in the city of Tabriz, a jewel of Iran since the medieval times and now the most major Azeri-majority city in the country. The University of Tabriz remains amongst the best in the country, and many careers have been made there. Ironically, for the Islamic Republic, many voters had respect for Pezeshkian precisely because he had studied under the previous regime and could not be accused of graft or favouritism in this regard.

From zealot to soldier

Not that Pezeshkian had been anything less than zealot-like and pro-revolutionary in 1979. The downfall of the Shah and the rise to power of Ayatollah Khomeini soon led to a ‘Cultural Revolution’—a term borrowed from Mao’s China—during which Iran’s universities were purged of anyone suspected of harbouring non-Islamist tendencies while women were brutally forced to don the mandatory veiling that soon became compulsory for all Iranian women everywhere.

As many Tabriz students remember, in later years, Pezeshkian was a devout pro-Khomeini student and helped enforce these restrictions. He gave many interviews in which he admitted to his own role in those years. But not all that he did during the 1980s is remembered badly today. When Saddam Hussein’s Iraq attacked Iran in 1980, Pezeshkian went to defend his country like millions of his fellow Iranians. During the war, he served with distinction as both a doctor and a soldier. He moved back and forth between the front and the University of Tabriz, where he completed residency periods.

After the war, he started teaching in Tabriz, climbing the ladders of his profession. In 1993, he got an advanced degree in heart surgery from a top college in Tehran. His scientific achievements and his pro-regime credentials both helped him rise, and he would come to head several universities there. He has done medical residencies in the US, Switzerland, and Thailand and is fluent in English—unlike most of his predecessors (even the academic Khatami spoke terribly broken English).

The year 1994 should have been a happy one for him since he started his post as the president of the medical college in Tabriz, where he had started his academic journey decades ago. But it went on to become perhaps the most bitter year in his life: in a tragic car accident, he lost his wife, Fateme Majidi, who was also a doctor, as well as their son. He would never remarry and go on to raise his surviving three children (a daughter and two sons) as a single father.

During the recent campaign, he attracted much sympathy not just because many identified with his struggles as a single father but because his children recalled how he had always helped with the house chores when his wife was alive, departing from a patriarchal stereotype. His daughter often accompanied him during the campaign and is already seen as something of a First Daughter. Pezeshkian is now the first Iranian president to move into office without a spouse.

A cabinet minister

When Khatami became president in 1997, on the back of a popular movement led by youth and women, Pezeshkian had no political career, although he was known as a university president in Tabriz. Towards the end of Khatami’s first term, his first political assignment changed the direction of his life. He was appointed a deputy health minister in 2000, serving for about a year before Khatami’s re-election.

He had a few qualities that made for a good potential political career: He had impeccable scientific credentials as an advanced heart surgeon who had edited top medical journals. He was straight-talking and didn’t speak in jargon. He was an amateur scholar of the Quran and Nahj al-Balaqah, the book of sermons and sayings by Ali, the first Shia Imam, a book he also repeatedly cited during the presidential campaign. He thus offered something of a popular religiosity, more in touch with the average Iranian than the bookish and Sharia-based Islam often offered by the clerics.

Khatami decided to appoint him the health minister in his second term despite his limited political experience. Many in the ministry resigned in protest at this newbie’s appointment. Two years into his term, the reformist-dominated parliament unsuccessfully impeached him to protest problems with the ministry’s provision of medical drugs.

But his most monumental challenge as health minister came in 2003 when Zahra Kazemi, an Iranian-Canadian photojournalist, died in custody in Tehran’s Evin prison, largely suspected of having been murdered by Iranian security services during interrogation. The hardliner prosecutor of Tehran, Sayid Mortazavi, was pushing on the Khatami administration to declare the death to have been accidental. But Pezeshkian wouldn’t have it. He studied the body personally and said the death had been caused by a blow to Kazemi’s head. According to insider accounts from the cabinet, he showed up and reassured everyone that Kazemi’s death couldn’t have been an accident.

This episode could have been part of a heroic narrative of him standing up to the regime’s henchmen, but like much in his career, the account is more checkered when you look closely. For instance, he refused to allow Canada to conduct its own independent investigation, and his report also noted that the body didn’t show marks of beating, unlike what other credible sources claimed. Thus, the episode is used both by his proponents and opponents.

Heading the minority

When the hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won a surprise victory in 2005, the reform movement experienced a thorough-going defeat. Like most Khatami ministers, Pezeshkian was headed out of state politics. This wasn’t just a routine change in government. Khatami and his lieutenants had taken the fight to Khamenei, trying to marginalise him and democratise Iranian power structures. They had manifestly failed, which is why so many of their traditional voters stayed home in 2005, paving the way for an Ahmadinejad victory.

But in this moment of defeat, a new and crucial phase in Pezeshkian’s political life opened. In a way, his path to the presidency was paved right here. The reformist-dominated parliament elected in 2000 had resolutely backed Khatami. It had challenged Khamenei, trying to pass bills that would increase the powers of the former vis-à-vis the latter. In 2004 and 2008, the Guardian Council struck back, disqualifying many reformists from running at all.

However, Iran was not to become a one-party state, and a few reformists were allowed to run. Pezeshkian was one. In 2008, he was elected to the parliament despite many of his fellow reformists having been disqualified. Controversially, he defended the credentials of Soleyman Khodadadi—an elected MP who had been convicted of rape of a woman who went on to kill herself. Even conservative MPs protested this, but Pezeshkian stood by him, leaving a blot on his career.

Iran’s official politics is centred more around personalities than political parties. Pezeshkian didn’t belong to a party and would even say in 2011: “I have said it a hundred times, and I’ll say it again: I am not a reformist.” However, as a former health minister under Khatami, he was one of the major reformist-backed MPs and has remained so since then. With most Iranian parliaments since then dominated by hardliners, Pezeshkian has often led the Minority Caucus of reformists, having to operate under adverse conditions.

This has also meant playing ball with his opponents. In 2009, when the regime declared Ahmadinejad to have won the elections against the reformist-backed candidate Mirhossein Mousavi, reformists alleged rigging, and a millions-strong street movement began. As a sitting parliamentarian, Pezeshkian (alongside many other reformist MPs) caused controversy by attending Ahmadinejad’s inauguration, effectively giving him his seal of approval. But he also gave one of the most important speeches in his career a few weeks later.

We can already see the outlines of his political style and career in it. Depending on one’s perspective, you could see it as a courageous appeal to the regime against suppression of the protesters. Or a rather loud but ultimately meek move in which he repeatedly swears loyalty to Khamenei and only asks the authorities to remain “within the law.”

As usual, he quotes extensively from Imam Ali—especially his letters to Malik al-Ashtar, a loyal companion of the Imam appointed by him as governor of Egypt. The letter is known as a literary masterpiece in the religious genre, full of citable aphorisms. “Do not attack people like a brutal animal,” was one line shouted by Pezeshkian from the podium, causing commotion in the hardliner-led Majlis.

The regime successfully put down the 2009 movement, and many reformists were sent to prison following show trials. Even Khatami came under a semi-ban on political activity. Pezeshkian was a survivor, though, and has consistently kept his seat in the parliament. A little-known event in these years also helped secure his political future. Ali Asghar Shafiyian—a farsighted journalist thinking about reformist continuity, asked him to help launch a new media outlet. On Pezeshkian’s suggestion, they called it Ensaf, Persian for ‘fairness.’ Throughout these years, he has thus had a dedicated mouthpiece.

In 2013, on Shafiyian’s suggestion, Pezeshkian ran for the presidency, but he later resigned in favour of Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a leading regime founder who had clashed with Khamenei. Rafsanjani was ultimately disqualified, but a disciple of his, Hassan Rouahni, rose to the presidency in 2013. Although himself a centrist, Rouhani’s win relied on reformist support and mobilisation. In the parliament, an era of collaboration began between centrists and reformists. As a pragmatic conservative, Ali Larijani kept his seat as the parliament speaker, but Pezeshkian was elected as the First Vice-Speaker—the second biggest job.

As a legislator, Pezeshkian doesn’t have a track record that is that ambitious. He sponsored a progressive bill for the decriminalisation of drug addiction in Iran. Still, since its provisions included handing out government-sponsored drugs to addicts, the police loudly disagreed and helped quash it (His opponents in the recent campaign attacked him as having advocated “free opium for addicts.”) He headed a now-forgotten committee which aimed to secure the release of Mousavi and Karroubi from house detention, a key Rouhani pledge, which didn’t go anywhere.

Most controversially, he was picked as the chair of a parliamentary caucus for Azeri-speaking MPs but, accused on all sides of harbouring crypto-separatism, the caucus had to fold before it began. He has never shied away from his Turkic identity, saying in 2016 that he was “thankful to God for having been born an (Azeri) Turk.”

Throughout these years, he repeatedly showed loyalty to Khamenei and the regime. When the Trump administration designated the militia Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist organisation, he donned the IRGC green uniform and its customary accompanying Keffiyah to show his support. When the regime security forces attacked protesters on the streets, killing hundreds of them during waves in 2017 and 2019, Pezeshkian made some procedural appeals, but this usually went hand in hand with condemning at least some of the protesters.

In 2021, he attempted to run for president again, but all the declarations of loyalty didn’t go anywhere, and the Guardian Council denied him a run. Making his protest known, he said, “The country belongs to us all, not a specific faction or group. People speak ill of us. We are to blame.”

These remarks also show his political orientation, often calling for unity of the regime establishment and asking for collective responsibility. After Mahsa Zhina Amini—a young Kurdish woman—died in custody in Tehran in September 2022, following her arrest for allegedly improper observation of veiling rules, Pezeshkian went on live TV to protest how the regime had handled the case. Once more, regime bodies were claiming she had died not because she was beaten during her detention but because of “pre-existing medical conditions.” A physician, Pezeshkian, called this nonsense and advocated a proper response. Later on, he was also instrumental in stopping the execution of a physician protester, sentenced to death for his alleged role in the killing of a security official. Yet, he condemned protesters early on, showing his ultimate loyalty to the system.

Without such loyalist qualities, it is unlikely Pezeshkian would have been allowed to run for the presidency. On the campaign trail, he didn’t run on much of a reformist agenda, instead emphasising meritocracy and fairness. Thus, he enters office with much-lowered expectations as the only second-ever reformist president of the Islamic Republic. But he will also be surrounded on all sides by unelected institutions dominated by hardliners who vociferously opposed him during the campaign.

Many think he was Khamenei’s favourite pick precisely because he would be a weak head of government. But perhaps Pezeshkian’s young years in the Majlis have taught him skills that could help him navigate the choppy waters of Iran’s regime politics. It remains to be seen whether he can realise much of his promises of making Iran a fairer place.

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