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Masoud Pezeshkian: Reformist is now Iran’s elected president

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Comment on the photo, Masoud Pezeshkian won the runoff election with 53.7% of the vote.

  • author, Tom Bennett and BBC Persian
  • Role, BBC News

Unconventional candidate Masoud Pezeshkian will become Iran’s first reformist president in nearly two decades, after defeating hardliner Saeed Jalili in a runoff election on Friday.

The 69-year-old former heart surgeon and health minister campaigned on promises to moderate Iran’s conservative outlook and improve relations with the West. He has criticized the country’s notorious morality police and called for negotiations to renew the faltering 2015 nuclear deal.

But analysts remain skeptical that he can bring about meaningful change within an establishment dominated by hardline conservatives.

When Mr. Pezeshkian’s name was confirmed on the ballot four weeks ago, following the death of hardline President Ebrahim Raisi in a helicopter crash, even his most loyal supporters were shocked that he had made it past the Guardian Council.

The powerful body of clerics and jurists that vets candidates’ religious and revolutionary credentials has barred several prominent reformists and moderates from running in recent elections, including Mr. Pezeshkian himself in the last presidential election in 2021.

But once his candidacy was approved this time, Mr. Pezeshkian managed to strike a delicate balance between promises of change and declarations of loyalty to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who holds ultimate authority in the country.

In a celebratory speech, he praised Ayatollah Khamenei’s “guidance,” saying he could not have succeeded without him.

Comment on the photo, Many supporters hope that Mr. Bezeshkian will prioritize women’s rights.

Masoud Pezeshkian was born in 1954 in the city of Mahabad, in the West Azerbaijan Province in the northwest of the country.

He is of mixed Azerbaijani-Kurdish descent and grew up speaking both languages, giving him wide popularity among ethnic minorities who make up more than a third of Iran’s 89 million people.

He studied medicine in the years before the 1979 Islamic Revolution – and as a young doctor, he organized medical aid for wounded soldiers during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s. He specialized in heart surgery after the conflict.

In 1994, Mr. Bezeshkian faced personal tragedy when his wife and son were killed in a car accident. He chose not to remarry, raising his daughter and two remaining sons alone—a story he told along the campaign trail, promising his supporters: “As I have been loyal to my family, I will be loyal to you.”

He rose through the political ranks in the early 2000s, serving as Minister of Health during the second term of reformist President Mohammad Khatami’s government between 2001 and 2005.

He has represented the northwestern city of Tabriz in parliament since 2008 and was deputy speaker of parliament from 2016 to 2020.

After the authorities cracked down on unrest following the disputed 2009 presidential election, Mr. Pezeshkian drew attention for his criticism of the government’s treatment of protesters, which sparked a backlash from hardline politicians in Iran.

Balancing change with loyalty

He narrowly defeated Saeed Jalili in the first round of the election, with voter turnout at an all-time low of 40 percent, amid calls for a boycott of the election by opponents of the clerical establishment.

Turnout was about 10 percentage points higher in the runoff, with Bezeshkian winning 53.7% of the votes cast.

In a post on X after his win, Mr. Pezeshkian told Iranians that this marked the beginning of a “partnership.”

“The difficult path ahead can only be paved with your cooperation, compassion and trust. I extend my hand to you and swear on my honor that I will not leave you alone on this path. Do not leave me alone,” he wrote.

Although Mr. Pezeshkian is considered a reformist, he often emphasizes his loyalty to the Supreme Leader.

He described himself as a “hardline reformist” and said: “I am a hardliner, and we seek reform for the sake of these principles.”

In the context of Iranian politics, the term “hardliners” refers to conservative supporters of the Supreme Leader who advocate protecting the ideological principles of the early days of the 1979 Revolution.

Observers believe that Mr. Bezeshkian’s ability to reconcile reformist and fundamentalist agendas will be crucial to his success.

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