Secrets of the Presidential Elections: Why did Tehran allow moderate reformists to run?

The British newspaper “Financial Times” confirmed that a wave of optimism has swept through political reformists in Iran after a representative from their camp was allowed to run against several hardline candidates in the recent presidential elections.

Massoud Pezeshkian, a 69-year-old surgeon and member of parliament, was the surprise choice on the list of qualified candidates published by the Guardian Council over the weekend. This council, dominated by hardliners, must approve all presidential nominations.

Pezeshkian’s Openness

The British newspaper added that Pezeshkian, a former health minister, was not initially seen as a prominent reformist candidate, but he gained admirers due to his openness, willingness to criticize the hardline policies of the Islamic Republic, and commitment to justice and equality.

His “For Iran” campaign has called for a new era of relations between the regime and the people, and to address the widespread “distrust” of politicians through a process of national “reconciliation.”

Mohammad Sadegh Javadi-Hessar, a reformist politician, said, “Pezeshkian will be the phenomenon of this presidential election.” He added, “The Iranian society is very disappointed and waiting for a big change. I am very optimistic that people will see Pezeshkian as the right person.”

The Guardian Council had prevented major reformists from running in the 2021 elections, which were won by Ebrahim Raisi, whose death in a helicopter crash last month led to early elections on June 28.

Diversity in the Race

The newspaper confirmed that few observers expected the regime, led by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to change its strategy and allow reformists on the ballot this time, but Pezeshkian’s addition has shaken up the competition.

It continued, saying that whether this was a conscious decision to add diversity to the race and encourage voter turnout, or a calculation that a mid-level reformist could not garner enough support to win, is a matter of debate.

However, Pezeshkian has already been endorsed by Eshaq Jahangiri, the former first vice-president who was barred from voting by the Guardian Council, and Javad Zarif, the former foreign minister who negotiated the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers. Former reformist President Mohammad Khatami is also expected to do the same.

Repressive Decisions

Analysts say supporters of Ali Larijani, a senior conservative who was also barred from running and had come close to moderate forces, have joined Pezeshkian’s campaign in some cities.

The newspaper added that among the other candidates in the six-candidate race are Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, the parliament speaker and former Revolutionary Guard commander considered by many to be the front-runner, Alireza Zakani, the mayor of Tehran, and Saeed Jalili, the former nuclear negotiator representing the most hardline wing of the regime.

Analysts also say Pezeshkian’s background as a Quran teacher and reader of Nahj al-Balagha, a key text for Shia Muslims, could make him acceptable to other segments of society, including traditional conservatives.

Mohammad Ali Abtahi, former reformist vice-president, noted that this month’s election could resemble the 1997 election when Khatami was the surprise winner, or the 2013 election when centrist Hassan Rouhani won on a promise to sign the nuclear deal, which failed when President Donald Trump withdrew the United States and imposed harsh sanctions, delivering a severe blow to moderate and reformist politicians in Iran.

Secrets of Iranian Elections

An insider of the regime said the Iranian leadership was aware of the need for a high turnout to show that the Islamic Republic enjoys general legitimacy.

Raisi‘s 2021 victory was marred by the lowest turnout in any Iranian presidential election, at only 48%. Experts say Pezeshkian needs at least a 60% turnout to have a chance.

Abtahi said, “Pezeshkian’s supporters are expected to come from intellectual and business communities, as well as breadwinners who feel crushed under economic pressures. However, young people remain distant from the polling stations, but things can change until the last minute on election day.”

Regime insiders also insisted that Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guard could work with Pezeshkian if he defies expectations and wins.

The informed source said, “The country needs a president who can deal with the world and, if necessary, engage in serious talks with the United States.”

He added, “Pezeshkian is a moderate figure and a good compromise candidate for the Islamic Republic.”

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