Don’t fall for the spin that Iran’s new president, Masoud Pezeshkian, is a reformer

He is nothing more than a career Islamic Republic loyalist


Newly-elected Iranian President Masoud Pezeshkian speaks during a visit to the shrine of the Islamic Republic's founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in Tehran on 6 July (Photo by ATTA KENARE/AFP via Getty Images)

July 08, 2024 16:02

Masoud Pezeshkian’s victory in the Islamic Republic of Iran’s presidential contest should be treated with significant scepticism. The “elections” in Iran — or as many Iranians call them, “selections” — are not free or fair. The president’s power is extremely limited and beware of the hype promoting Pezeshkian’s ascendance.

Pezeshkian is a career Islamic Republic loyalist. He has boasted of his role in promoting forced hijab in the early years after the 1979 Islamic Revolution and rose through the ranks of Iran’s medical system because of his adherence to its hardline ideological mores. While at times criticising the Iranian system’s response to a variety of crises — for example the murder of Mahsa Amini in 2022 — which have won him the misleading moniker of “reformist,” he has never defected or departed from Tehran’s party line: adherence to the supreme leader’s rule and the founding precepts of the Islamic Republic.

A former health minister, member of parliament and deputy speaker of parliament, Pezeshkian will be a weak president, especially as he lacks a pedigree from the security establishment. Despite nominally chairing the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), the SNSC will be dominated by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and other hardened men from the most repressive institutions in Tehran. Even if his hardline opponent, Saeed Jalili, had won — who had experience as a nuclear negotiator — he too would have been a rubber stamp for the supreme leader.

Khamenei is looking for individuals he can control. And Khamenei would never have allowed Pezeshkian to run if there was a risk of him being a true wild card. Pezeshkian hits a sweet spot for Khamenei as he is untested, unknown on the international stage and carries the brand of being a “reformist” which could prove useful in creating fissures in the international community to neutralise pressure campaigns. This is especially relevant for Iran as it is preparing for the possibility of the return of Donald Trump to the White House. This could be seen in the Iranian presidential debates, where a Trump second term loomed large in the conversations. Public reporting even suggested that Iran’s Foreign Ministry had created an “informal working group” last spring to prepare for Trump. Thus, having Pezeshkian in the presidential chair with a smiling face saying all the right things could prove helpful for Khamenei in thwarting a Trump administration’s ability to form international coalitions isolating Iran that may destabilise the Iranian system as he prepares for the succession.

Pezeshkian’s campaign was bolstered by the return of former Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, a man suspected of running a significant Iranian influence operation on US and European soil for years. Zarif campaigned heavily for Pezeshkian. Already since Pezeshkian’s victory there has been a media commentary heavily promoting Pezeshkian’s win, overstating his power and ability to change Iran and heralding the potential return of diplomats from the presidency of Hassan Rouhani who negotiated the now defunct Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

Zarif has been increasingly vocal, borrowing from the familiar themes he used when he became foreign minister under Rouhani in 2013: demanding “engagement,” offering “mutual respect,” and dangling “win-win solutions” to court Western diplomats who still harbour the fantasy — despite a four-decade case study of failures — of a new, working relationship with Tehran.

Because of this delusion of moderation in Tehran, which is based on a fundamental misconception of the way power is wielded in the Islamic Republic bolstered by Iranian information operations spanning years, some Western commentators have engaged in comical mirror imaging, comparing the election results in France, the UK and Iran as a win for “democracy” with the hope that President Joe Biden will also prevail against authoritarianism. But the Islamic Republic is a religious authoritarian government based on the guardianship of the Islamic jurist. Its tightly controlled elections are not organic democratic processes, akin to those taking place in Western governments. The uncritical acceptance in US and European media of turnout figures from a repressive state also assists in this perception.

If the Islamic Republic is not afraid to shoot its own people, do these outlets truly believe it is afraid to cook the electoral books?

In the end, these narratives serve Iran’s interests. The portrayal of the Islamic Republic’s political system as a cosmic battle between enlightened moderates versus dour conservatives provides an accessible way for Westerners, particularly liberals, to project their own domestic political debates onto a hostile and subversive foreign state. Some promoters of this thinking believe it provides a “nuanced” view of Iran. But in the end it warps sobre policymaking and provides a deeply distorted window into a deeply predatory and irredeemable regime.

There are political debates in Iran and Pezeshkian’s presidency will usher in a different tone and style from Ebrahim Raisi’s administration. But clashes in elite opinion and styles do not automatically translate into the power to make substantive changes. That authority rests with the supreme leader. At 85, Khamenei has been sitting in his chair since 1989. To him, presidents are disposable masks he uses to achieve the one objective he holds most dear: preservation of the Islamic Republic.

Unfortunately for Iran’s spin masters, it is not 1997, when the last so-called “reformist” President, Mohammad Khatami, took office. Neither is it 2013 anymore, when the so-called “moderate” Rouhani became president. There is greater public awareness of the true nature of the unreformable Iranian system, thanks to those Iranians who have been bravely telegraphing to the world this fact through successive rounds of protests with chants like “reformists, hardliners, it is over for all of you.”

Jason M. Brodsky is the policy director of United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI) and a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute

He is on X @JasonMBrodsky

July 08, 2024 16:02

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive