Reform or Facade? Pezeshkian’s Challenges in Transforming Iran

Aïda Abou Charaf
Iranian reformist president Masoud Pezeshkian greets supporters outside a polling station in Tehran on Friday 5th July. Source: Atta Kenare/AFP via Getty Images

On May 19th, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and other officials tragically lost their lives in a helicopter crash. Iran subsequently held snap presidential elections, which, after the second round of voting on the 5th of July, resulted in the election of reformist Masoud Pezeshkian. The newly-elected president leads the Islamic Republic of Iran, a nation contested by its population, burdened by sanctions, and drowning in a plummeting economy.

Of the 61 million Iranians called to the polls, Pezeshkian received more than 16 million votes against over 13 million for his opponent, the ultra-conservative Saeed Jalili, out of 30 million ballots already counted, according to electoral authorities. After a first-round marked by a strong abstention, participation stood at 49.8%.

Announcement from Pezeshkian after his election on the platform X, which is banned in Iran.

The Guardian Council selects all presidential candidates based on various criteria, such as education, commitment to Islam, and the values of the Islamic Republic. They orchestrate the elections, deciding who gets to the forefront and who is removed. Considering this, the extent to which Pezeshkian is a genuine reformist able to bring significant changes to the country remains questionable.

“I didn’t know the candidates’ names, and I didn’t want to know. It is all a game. We vote for one only because we don’t want to vote for the other. Why should I vote when I cannot decide for my life? I was once arrested because I wasn’t wearing a hijab, they then went to my parents’ home and destroyed everything.” As an internationally renowned Iranian athlete, X (her identity is confidential for security reasons) had to wear her hijab even outside Iranian territory. She and many other Iranians don’t believe in change and consider the reformist a façade. “They have another Islam, another God. It is not Islam in the Quran. I really want to get back to my country, but I have no place there,” she continues.

A security officer sits at a polling center for the run-off presidential election between Masoud Pezeshkian and Saeed Jalili in Tehran, Iran, July 5, 2024. Source: Iranintl

What makes the Islamic Republic a curious case study, like any ideological authoritarian regime, is its evolution. Religion is an instrument benefiting the powerful whilst the people suffer. The first round of voting on June 28th experienced the lowest turnout in the history of the Islamic Republic since the Islamic Revolution of 1979. More than political fatigue, there is genuine disgust.

Young graduates, women, and citizens the current regime removed and have launched a movement to boycott the elections. Voting is no longer a sign of change for them. The hashtag #ElectionCircus is currently trending on social media, showing the population’s disenchantment.

One of the many examples of posts with the #ElectionCircus hashtag circulating on social media.

The economic situation and the sanctions

The economic situation in Iran is beyond critical. The inflation rate stands at 50% and there is a significant loss in the value of the Iranian currency. The rift between the Islamic Republic and the population grows, with more than half of the population living below the poverty line and a rising unemployment rate, especially among young graduates.

Accompanying the economic crisis are restrictions on rights, with women who do not comply with the mandatory hijab rule facing punishments such as fines. Another woman who wished to remain anonymous for security reasons stated that the government took her car because they caught her driving without a hijab, and remains without it to this day. Even taxi drivers and restaurant managers ask women to wear a headscarf because they fear losing their jobs.

Additionally, political prisoners are conditionally released from prison in exchange for large sums of money. In his campaign, Pezeshkian addressed the issue of mandatory hijab for women, one of the causes of the widespread protest movement that shook the country in late 2022 following the death of Mahsa Amini, who was arrested for not adhering to the strict dress code.

A woman holds a placard with a picture of Mahsa Amini during a protest after the announcement of the snap presidential election. Source: Markus Schreiber / AP Photo

Under the slogan “For Iran”, Pezeshkian promised to be a voice of the voiceless, to promote human rights, and find solutions to the economic disaster. He also wants greater cooperation with the West in an effort to lift sanctions which have not only crippled the economy, but have limited access to essential goods, medicines, and services, further straining the lives of ordinary Iranians. These sanctions target key sectors, including oil, banking, and trade, aiming to curb Iran’s nuclear program and reduce its influence in the region. Not only have they isolated Iran economically but also politically, exacerbating internal strife and pushing the country into a precarious position on the global stage.

The International Scene

Internationally, Iran remains a contentious player. Its support for proxy groups in the Middle East, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen, its ballistic missile program, and its nuclear ambitions have drawn criticism and concern from the international community. Efforts to revive the nuclear deal have been ongoing, with various diplomatic engagements, but progress is slow and fraught with difficulties. The negotiations, specifically with the U.S., could become more hostile if Donald Trump returns to the White House this November.  

The European Union has attempted to maintain a balancing act, advocating for diplomatic solutions while condemning Iran’s human rights abuses and regional activities. Countries like China and Russia, however, have continued to engage with Iran, providing a level of economic relief and political support.

The path ahead

Pezeshkian becoming president could offer some hope for the country, with the potential for better communication with the West, improvements in human rights in the context of harsh gender apartheid policies, and efforts to enhance the economy and ease sanctions. However, his power will be limited. Ultimately, the authority rests with the Supreme Leader and head of state, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. If Pezeshkian remains true to his words, the fight will be tough and the road long, but change could eventually emerge.

Will Pezeshkian be able to navigate these challenges and bring about the desired reforms?

  • How might Pezeshkian’s presidency influence Iran’s foreign relations, especially with countries like the U.S., China, and Russia?
  • Could a new Nuclear Deal lead to the easing of sanctions and improvement of Iran’s economy?
  • Can Pezeshkian’s presidency restore faith in the political system among young Iranians who are increasingly disillusioned?

Suggested Readings

Hafezi, Parisa. “Who is Masoud Pezeshkian, Iran’s new president-elect?”, Reuters, 2024

The Inside Story Podcast. “What does the death of Ebrahim Raisi mean for Iran?”, Al Jazeera Podcast, 2024

Wintour, Patrick. “Reformist Masoud Pezeshkian wins Iran presidential election”, The Guardian, 2024

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Reform or Facade? Pezeshk…

by Aïda Abou Charaf time to read: 5 min