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Masoud Pezeshkian Wins Iran Election


In an election upset in Iran, the reformist candidate, Masoud Pezeshkian, who advocated for moderate policies at home and improved relations with the West, won the presidential runoff election, beating his hard-line rival, the Ministry of Interior said on Saturday morning.

Mr. Pezeshkian, 69, a cardiac surgeon, got 16.3 million votes to defeat the hard-line candidate, Saeed Jalili, delivering a blow to the conservative faction and a major victory for the reformist faction that had been sidelined from politics for the past few years. Mr. Jalili received 13.5 million votes.

After polls closed at midnight, turnout stood at 50 percent, about 10 percentage points higher than in the first round of the election with about 30.5 million ballots cast in total, according to Iran’s interior ministry. The first round saw a record-low turnout because many Iranians had boycotted the vote as an act of protest.

However, the prospect of a hard-line administration that would double down on strict social rules, including enforcing mandatory hijab on women, and remain defiant in negotiations to lift sanctions, apparently spurred Iranians to turn up at the polls in slightly larger numbers.

Mr. Pezeshkian’s supporters took to the streets in the predawn hours of Saturday, according to video footage on social media and his campaign, honking horns, dancing and cheering outside his campaign offices in many cities, including his hometown, Tabriz, when initial results showed he was leading. They also took to social media to congratulate Iranians for turning up at polls to “save Iran,” a campaign slogan of Mr. Pezeshkian’s.

“The end of the rule of minority over majority. Congratulations for the victory of wisdom over ignorance,” Ali Akbar Behmanesh, a reformist politician and head of Mr. Pezeshkian’s campaign in the province of Mazandaran, said in a post on X, formerly Twitter.

Some conservative supporters of Mr. Jalili said on social media that, regardless of who had won, the higher turnout was a victory for the Islamic Republic, and that they hoped the new administration would work to bridge the divisions within political factions.

While Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, wields the most power in the government, analysts said that the president was not without influence and can set domestic policies and shape foreign policy.

“A reform-minded president, despite all the limitations and failures of the past, is still meaningfully better — in some significant way it would put some constraint on the authoritarianism of the Islamic Republic,” said Nader Hashemi, a professor of Middle Eastern studies at George Washington University.

The special election was held because former President Ebrahim Raisi was killed in a helicopter crash in May. With Mr. Pezeshkian’s victory, a new term will start, lasting four years.

Elections in Iran are not free or fair by Western standards, and the selection of candidates is tightly vetted by the Guardian Council, an appointed committee of 12, with six clerics and six jurists. The government has long viewed voter turnout as a sign of legitimacy.

In the runoff election held on Friday, voters faced a choice between two candidates from opposite ends of Iran’s constrained political spectrum. They represented different visions for Iran, with consequences for domestic and regional politics.

In the days leading up to the election, Mr. Pezeshkian’s campaign rallies attracted larger and younger crowds. Prominent politicians like former Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif campaigned for him across the country and told voters the choice was between “day and night.” The message that voters should turn up out of fear of Mr. Jalili resonated.

“I’m going to vote because if I don’t vote, the Islamic Republic won’t be toppled, but it will help elect a hard-line president that I do not accept,” Ghazal, a 24-year-old fashion designer, in Tehran, said in a telephone interview. Like others interviewed, she declined to be quoted by her last name so as not to draw the attention of the government.

Sedigheh, a 41-year-old pediatrician in Tehran, the capital, also ended her boycott and voted for Mr. Pezeshkian on Friday. She said in an telephone interview that she had no hope that he or any president could bring the meaningful changes that people demanded. However, she said, “I voted because I think we need small and incremental changes that make our lives a little better, and if there is a president who can or wants to make those small changes, it’s enough for now.”

A veteran of the Iran-Iraq war, Mr. Pezeshkian served in Parliament for 16 years, including a stint as deputy parliament speaker, and as Iran’s health minister for four years. After his wife died in a car accident, he raised his children as a single father and has never remarried. That, and his identity as an Azeri, one of Iran’s ethnic minorities, endeared him to many voters. He campaigned with his daughter by his side at every rally and major speech.

Many conservatives crossed party lines and voted for Mr. Pezeshkian because, they said, Mr. Jalili was too extreme and would deepen tensions and divisions at home.

“Mr. Jalili cannot unite Iranians; he will divide us more, and we need someone who can bridge these divisions,” Saeed Hajati, a conservative who said he was voting for Mr. Pezeshkian while at a town-hall-style meeting Thursday that was streamed on the Clubhouse app.

Mr. Pezeshkian campaigned on a promise to work with his rivals to solve Iran’s many challenges because they were too formidable to overcome with infighting and divisions. In his last campaign video message, he said to Iranians, “I am your voice, even the voice of the 60 percent whose voice is never heard and did not show up at the polls.” He added, “Iran is for everyone, for all Iranians.”

By contrast, Mr. Jalili campaigned across the country with the message that he would safeguard revolutionary ideals and remain defiant when confronting Iran’s challenges, including sanctions and nuclear negotiations.

In the days before the vote, multiple prominent politicians and clerics called Mr. Jalili “delusional,” compared him to the Taliban and warned that his presidency would put the country on a collision course with the United States and Israel.

Reformists in Iran said that Mr. Pezeshkian’s election campaign was a boost for their political movement, which many inside and outside the country had written off because they had been marginalized in parliamentary elections and the last presidential election, in 2021. That year, competitive candidates were disqualified, while those who remained faced apathy from voters disillusioned with how past reformist presidents had pledged change but had failed to deliver.

“The reformist movement got a new lifeline in the country, and reformists came with all their force to support him,” said Ali Asghar Shaerdoost, former member of Parliament from the reformist party, in a live town-hall-style gathering streamed on Clubhouse from Tehran.

Many Iranians have called for an end to the Islamic Republic’s rule in waves of protests, including a 2022 uprising led by women in which crowds chanted, “Conservatives, reformists, the game is over.”

The government has brutally cracked down on dissent, killing more than 500 people and arresting tens of thousands. The widespread anger and loss of hope were reflected in the fact that half of eligible voters, about 61 million, sat out this election, saying that a vote for the government would be a betrayal of all victims.

Mahsa, a 34-year-old accountant in Isfahan, said in a telephone interview she refused to vote and was not buying the logic that she had to pick between “bad and worse.” She added, “I see this election as government propaganda — a kind of ridiculous mask behind which everything is controlled by a dictator.”

A daunting list of challenges awaits the winner: an ailing economy debilitated by years of sanctions, a frustrated electorate and geopolitical tripwires that have brought Iran to the brink of war twice this year.

Many Iranians blame the government for wrecking the economy, limiting social freedoms and isolating the country from the rest of the world — and the election served as a referendum of sorts on the government’s brand of ideologically driven politics.

During Mr. Raisi’s tenure, he oversaw a strategy of expanding his country’s regional influence and strengthening ties with Russia and China. Iranian-backed militant groups expanded their reach and gained more advanced weapons across the Middle East, and the country’s nuclear program advanced to weapon-threshold level in the aftermath of President Donald J. Trump’s exiting the nuclear deal in 2018.

As war rages between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, militant proxies backed by Iran have opened new fronts against Israel from Yemen to Lebanon. Those tensions took Iran to the brink of war with Israel in April and with the United States in February.

Mr. Raisi’s conservative government also faced domestic upheavals: some of the largest antigovernment protests in decades set off by the strict enforcement of the hijab law and fueled by a severe economic downturn.

Now, Iran’s economy has been battered by sanctions, mismanagement and corruption. Inflation has soared, and the value of the currency has plunged.

Mr. Pezeshkian said during election debates that he recognized that fixing the economy was inextricably linked to foreign policy — namely the standoff with the West over the nuclear program — and would negotiate to lift sanctions.

“Pezeshkian’s upset victory signifies that segments of the electorate are cognizant that while they can’t hope against all hope for a better future, they can at least avert further exacerbation of their situation,” said Ali Vaez, the Iran director at the International Crisis Group.

Leily Nikounazar and Alissa J. Rubin contributed reporting.



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