Return of the reformists: How will new leader Pezeshkian mold Iran’s policies?

Masoud Pezeshkian, a veteran reformist lawmaker, will soon take office as Iran’s new president.

He defeated his conservative rival and former lead nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili by a significant margin in last Friday’s runoff vote, paving the way for an unexpected return of reformists after three years of conservative rule.

In the coming weeks, Pezeshkian’s presidency will be validated by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, followed by an official inauguration in parliament and the formation of a ministerial Cabinet.

All eyes are now on the incoming administration’s policies, both at home and abroad, and how it plans to navigate a convoluted political landscape to push for the political, economic and social reforms Pezeshkian pledged during his campaign.

Addressing a gathering of his supporters in Tehran on Sunday, the first after his election, Pezeshkian offered to work closely with parliament and the judiciary “to navigate through crises.”

He admitted that the path ahead is rocky and vowed to advance “dialogue, convergence and national unity.”

Cooperation with parliament

One of the first challenges for Pezeshkian is to have the conservative-dominated parliament approve members of his Cabinet, who they view as being too liberal and West-centric.

Among those who actively campaigned for him include former Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and ex-Communications Minister Azari Jahromi.

Both served in the government of former President Hassan Rouhani and are unlikely to get the parliament’s nod.

The same is the case for Eshaq Jahangiri, who served as Rouhani’s first deputy.

Although Pezeshkian is open to cooperation with the parliament, experts believe it will be a tricky task for the reformist government, especially when it comes to key policy matters.

“We saw it in the final years of the Rouhani administration, when conservatives won the parliamentary election by a landslide and clearly defined red lines for the reformist government,” Jawad Salimi, an Iranian political analyst, told Anadolu.

He particularly referred to the Strategic Action Law to Counter Sanctions passed by the parliament in December 2020, which called for scaling up nuclear enrichment beyond the limit stipulated under the 2015 nuclear deal.

Rouhani’s government, which invested heavily in the 2015 nuclear deal, much to the chagrin of conservatives, had to implement the law despite its own reservations.

“In its last year, the Rouhani government was not on the same page with the parliament, but that changed when Ebrahim Raisi took over in 2021. Now, we might be back to square one,” said Salimi.

Today, Iran is enriching its uranium at 60% purity, much higher than the 3.67% it agreed to under the 2015 deal, blaming the US for breaching its commitments under the accord.

The issue has, in recent years, created friction between Tehran and the UN nuclear agency, which has often admonished Iran in its reports and adopted resolutions against it.

Engagement with the world

The return of the reformist government in Tehran has rekindled hopes that talks for the revival of the 2015 nuclear deal, effectively on the back burner for a while, will resume.

During his campaign, Pezeshkian stressed the importance of reviving the nuclear accord and strongly opposed arguments against it, citing the case of the Raisi administration pursuing its revival.

He said his foreign policy would be based on the principles of “dignity, wisdom, and expediency,” invoking the “general principles” of Ayatollah Khamenei.

He also advocated for Iran’s cooperation with the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), a Paris-based financial watchdog, in addressing the country’s economic problems, tying it to global trade.

Mahdi Motahharnia, a political analyst and academic, described Pezeshkian as an “advocate of development-oriented discourse” in contrast to Jalili’s “revolution-oriented discourse.”

Speaking to Anadolu, he said the reformist victory in the presidential election signifies the Iranian nation’s “desire for change and sanctions relief,” while adding that the general foreign policy of the country will remain unchanged and continue to be shaped by directives of the supreme leader.

Abolfazl Zohrevand, a lawmaker and former Iranian ambassador, said Pezeshkian advocates for engaging with the US and Europe to have sanctions lifted through dialogue, believing that it is imperative to “revisit” the 2015 nuclear deal and address issues with the UN nuclear agency.

He said Pezeshkian is also in favor of fostering relations with Eastern nations, but emphasizes the “need for equilibrium” in Iran’s foreign relations.

Pezeshkian, according to experts, will also continue the previous administration’s policy of support for Palestine, as well as regional allied groups such as Hezbollah, which was evident in a letter the president-elect sent to the Lebanese group’s leader Hassan Nasrallah on Monday.

Challenges at home

During the presidential debates, Pezeshkian said he would take other branches of government into confidence when implementing his domestic and foreign policies, asserting that no government in history “has been able to achieve growth and prosperity within a cage.”

Among the issues that figured prominently in the debates was inflation, with Pezeshkian arguing that the main cause of the problem was a government that takes money out of people’s pockets.

“Whenever we agreed to negotiate with the world, the inflation rate decreased and the economic growth rate increased, and whenever we did not negotiate, the economic growth rate decreased and inflation rate increased,” he said in one of the debates.

Pezeshkian has shown a preference for discussions aimed at shielding the lower economic strata from the impact of inflation, according to Zohrevand.

“However, he has yet to outline a definitive plan, leaving the nation waiting for concrete proposals,” he said, pointing to a lack of clarity in the new president’s economic blueprint.

Pezeshkian has emphasized the need to build trust between the government and the people, and engaging economic experts to resolve financial problems.

Motahharnia said Pezeshkian’s victory “heralds positive prospects for the domestic financial landscape, as evidenced by the depreciation of foreign currencies against the rial and the bullish trends in the stock market.”

However, he cautioned that if the new president is unable to prove his efficiency, combat corruption, and dismantle economic mafias, the period of optimism will be short-lived.

On the parliamentary bill related to the Islamic dress code, Pezeshkian was categorically opposed to it during his presidential campaign, which irked his conservative rivals.

He even took a stance against the “morality police,” known in Iran as the “Gasht-e-Irshad.”

He has also been fiercely against internet filtering in Iran, arguing that many online businesses have been affected the restrictions, while pledging to lift the curbs.

During the presidential debates, Pezeshkian described protests as “a fundamental right” and said if they were allowed peacefully, people would not resort to unrest.

“Most of what we have seen or heard from Pezeshkian so far are emotionally charged statements and promises. Now is the time to walk the talk, to prove that he is a man of action,” said Salimi.

“He will be tested both at home and abroad.”

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