Iran 2024: Reformer Pezeshkian on the path to reforms?

The International Institute for Middle East and Balkan Studies (IFIMES)[1] based in Ljubljana, Slovenia, regularly conducts analyses of events spanning the Middle East, the Balkans, and global affairs. IFIMES analyses the current developments in Iran following the presidential elections. From the analysis "Iran 2024: Reformer Pezeshkian on the path to reforms?" we present the most interesting parts.

Iran 2024: 


Reformer Pezeshkian on the path to reforms?


Reformer Masoud Pezeshkian, who advocates for greater openness towards the West, was elected President of the Islamic Republic of Iran in a decisive second round of presidential elections held on 5 July 2024. He faced hardline conservative candidate Saeed Jalili, succeeding President Ebrahim Raisi, who died in a helicopter crash in May 2024. Pezeshkian, a 69-year-old cardiac surgeon, secured over 16 million votes (53.6%) out of a total of 30.5 million voters, while his opponent received 44.3%.

The Iranian Electoral Commission announced that voter turnout in the second round of the presidential election rose to 49.8%, marking a 10% increase compared to the first round held on 28 June 2024, which saw a turnout of around 40%. Participation in the second round also surpassed the 2021 presidential election, where Ebrahim Raisi won with a turnout of 45.8%. Consequently, conservatives have lost the fourteenth presidential election to reformists, who have regained power after their departure in 2005 following the victory of conservative President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Pezeshkian had previously run twice in Iranian presidential elections, withdrawing his candidacy in 2013, and failing to secure a candidacy in the 2021 elections after the Constitutional Council rejected his eligibility to participate.

Masoud Pezeshkian was born in the Kurdish city of Mahabad to an Iranian Azerbaijani father and an Iranian Kurdish mother. Besides Persian, he speaks Azerbaijani, Kurdish, Arabic, and English. This linguistic and cultural versatility holds particular significance in Iran[2], a country that is multireligious, multiethnic, and multicultural, where Persians make up only 51% of the population. The demographics include Azerbaijanis (around 24%), Kurds (7%), Lurs (around 7%), Mazandaranis and Gilakis (around 7%), Arabs (3%), and Baloch (2%). Pezeshkian's Azerbaijani heritage connects him with the country's second-largest ethnic group, which has consistently demanded equal rights and protested for parity with the majority Persian ethnic community in terms of language use, equitable political and administrative participation, and the economic development of their region in Iran. Given his background, Pezeshkian's presidency may resonate positively within the Azerbaijani community.

Considering his political stance and consistent statements since the beginning of his election campaign, Masoud Pezeshkian, who served as the Minister of Health (2001-2005), is regarded as the last political figure closely aligned with former reformist President Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005). Pezeshkian is known for his clear reformist orientation, albeit strictly within the existing system of governance.

After his victory, Pezeshkian addressed the nation on the "X" platform, stating: "The elections are over, marking only the beginning of our shared destiny. The road ahead will be challenging, but with your support, compassion, and trust, I extend my hand and pledge with my honour not to abandon you. I am not backed by any party or faction; it is the people who have chosen me. I extend a hand of friendship and cooperation to all."[3]

Domestic policy

Masoud Pezeshkian has notably distinguished by his support for the opposition. In 2009, while serving as a parliamentarian, he dared to criticize the repression of Iranians who took to the streets against the re-election of ultra-conservative President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. During his election campaign, Pezeshkian promised to lift internet restrictions and vehemently opposed morality police patrols responsible for enforcing compulsory hijab rules on women. He called for greater representation of women, and religious and ethnic minorities at all levels of government.

Pezeshkian has advocated for finding a lasting solution to the compulsory hijab issue, one of the key reasons behind large-scale protests that rocked the country in late 2022 following the tragic death of Mahsa Amini, a young woman who was arrested for defying strict dress codes in the Islamic Republic in September 2022.

He wasn't the choice of the ruling conservative religious hierarchy, which was compelled to allow his candidacy in response to public demands and protests over the past two years. Therefore, his participation in these elections is seen as a partial victory for demonstrators, the middle class, and the youth in advancing their demands. On the other hand, after his victory, Pezeshkian indicated his intention to collaborate with conservatives, a pragmatic approach aimed at avoiding conflict with the regime and the deep state, where Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has the final say.

Economic vision

During his campaign, Masoud Pezeshkian's economic platform focused on social justice, balanced regional development, and structural reforms. He pledged to establish a transparent economic system, combat corruption, and stimulate economic growth. Pezeshkian is confident that by reforming economic structures and creating a favourable investment climate, opportunities for employment can be generated and unemployment reduced. He promises to tackle the current inflation rate of approximately 40%. As the future president, he emphasizes Iran's need for foreign investments amounting to $200 billion, underscoring that such funds can only be attracted through improved international relations, particularly with Western nations, where current relations are at their lowest. Iran ranks as the 19th largest economy globally with a GDP of $1.081 trillion.

Presidential powers

According to the constitution, the President of the Islamic Republic of Iran holds limited powers. The primary responsibility for governing the country rests with the Supreme Leader, who is considered the head of state. The President heads the government and is tasked with implementing political guidelines set by the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The President is the highest elected official and holds the second-highest authority after the Supreme Leader, who wields absolute power in Iran. The President is responsible for executing state policies shaped by the Supreme Leader. The President manages the daily affairs of the government and has limited influence over domestic and foreign policies.

However, his powers are completely limited, especially in matters related to security. The state police force is managed by the Ministry of Internal Affairs. The Chief of Police is appointed by the Supreme Leader and reports to him directly. The same applies to military commanders and the Revolutionary Guard.

The President's powers may be subject to parliamentary oversight, which can enact new laws conflicting with presidential policies. On the other hand, the Guardian Council, comprising close allies of the Supreme Leader, holds responsibility for adopting and potentially rejecting new laws, functioning akin to a second chamber of parliament.

External policy

The elections are being closely watched internationally. Iran, a significant power in the Middle East, finds itself amidst numerous geopolitical crises, from conflicts in Gaza, Syria, and Yemen to its longstanding nuclear program, which has been a contentious issue between the Islamic Republic and the West for several years. Pezeshkian's victory in the elections gives Western nations some hope for progress in nuclear talks, although it is recognized that the president does not hold sole authority on this matter.

Masoud Pezeshkian, backed by two former Iranian presidents, reformist Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005) and moderate Hassan Rouhani (2013-2021), called for greater openness towards the West during his election campaign. He also advocated for "constructive relations" with Washington and European countries aimed at "bringing Iran out of its isolation”.

The nuclear agreement concluded in 2015 between Iran and the major powers (the USA, China, Russia, France, Germany, and Britain) imposed restrictions on Tehran's nuclear activities in exchange for lifting international sanctions, which had severely impacted its economy. However, the agreement collapsed after the United States unilaterally withdrew from it in 2018 under former US President Donald Trump's decision, reimposing strict sanctions on Iran. Consequently, Iran gradually began retreating from its core obligations under the agreement. Tehran denies seeking to develop a nuclear bomb, but its nuclear program is advancing rapidly. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) states that Iran is the only country ostensibly without nuclear weapons that has enriched uranium to 60%. This enrichment level brings Iran closer to the 90 % required to produce an atomic bomb, significantly exceeding the 3.67 % enrichment level typically used in nuclear power plants. Western diplomats and experts agree that had Saeed Jalili won, the progress of the nuclear program negotiations would have been further paralyzed. European negotiators describe Jalili as a "fanatic with ideological rhetoric" during negotiations.

Reviving the 2015 nuclear agreement is no longer a realistic option, as conditions on the ground have radically changed. Iran's nuclear program has significantly advanced, sanctions remain very strict, trust is at an all-time low, and global powers are no longer on the same page regarding Iran. The newly elected president of Iran might rekindle constructive diplomacy and negotiate a series of agreements or at least annexes to help avoid a full-blown crisis.

In the context of the Gaza war and the mutual missile strikes between Iran and Israel in April 2024, there has been a shift in Iranian policy. Hardliners, who hold a majority in the parliament, are calling for a "new military nuclear doctrine." Consequently, the new president may face significant challenges due to pressures from the deep state within the regime and external pressures, which are inevitable if Donald Trump returns to the White House in the November 2024 elections. Iranians are fully aware that easing sanctions first requires direct talks with Washington. Therefore, the continuation of Democratic Party control in the United States is crucial to achieving this goal. As for the Europeans, their role is marginal and somewhat irrelevant, with the exception of the United Kingdom. The Labour Party's victory in July 2024 might lead to positive developments in this regard.

In any case, within Iran's dual parallel system combining religious and state administration, the president lacks the authority to enact significant policy shifts regarding the nuclear program or support for armed groups across different regions of the Middle East. These decisions fall under the jurisdiction of the Supreme Leader, who holds the power to determine the state's strategic directives in military, economic, and political spheres.

A reformer on the path to reforms

The primary question in the coming period is how Iran will transform following the victory of a candidate with qualities and aspirations like Pezeshkian's. Iran is now entering a new era since the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979. Iranians have elected a reformist who aims to steer Iran out of its internal economic and social crises and international isolation. The question remains, how?

Ljubljana/Washington/London, 9 July 2024     

[1] IFIMES - International Institute for Middle East and Balkan Studies, based in Ljubljana, Slovenia, has a special consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council ECOSOC/UN in New York since 2018, and it is the publisher of the international scientific journal "European Perspectives."

[2] CIA, link:

[3] »X«, link: