Damage Control

Iran has a new president, its first avowed ‘reformist’ in almost two decades. Masoud Pezeshkian, a cardiac surgeon and former health minister who served in the Khatami administration of the early 2000s, clinched the election with 53.6% of the vote. Born to an Azeri father and Kurdish mother in the city of Mahabad, and raised in Urumia in Western Azerbaijan, Pezeshkian has a common touch, humble demeanour and fondness for Azeri proverbs which set him apart from his rivals. Just two months ago his ascent to the presidency was unforeseeable. Yet the sudden death of Ebrahim Raisi in a helicopter crash in mid-May prompted a political shift which commentators inside and outside the country are still struggling to comprehend.

To grasp how someone like Pezeshkian managed to pass through the filter of the Guardian Council, the clerical dominated body responsible for vetting the ‘suitability’ of electoral candidates, we must rewind to 2021. The election that year was perhaps the most carefully stage-managed in the Islamic Republic’s recent history. Raisi’s meteoric rise through several unelected power centres – his trusteeship of the powerful Astan-e Qods-e Razavi religious foundation, his tenure as Prosecutor General and then Chief Justice – led many to assume he was being positioned as the successor to the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who had entered his fourth decade of rule. It appeared that Khamenei and his allies had decided to sacrifice the already limited competitiveness of Iran’s presidential elections to guarantee conservative control of all three branches of government and ensure a smooth transition when he finally left the scene. Millions of Iranians, incensed by Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA and the unfulfilled promises of the Rouhani administration, refused to go along with this electoral charade. Turnout hit a historic low of 48.8% and ballots were spoiled en masse. Raisi coasted to power regardless.

Yet his death in the forests of Eastern Azerbaijan put paid to this plan. In 2021, the presidential contest was inseparable from the question of leadership succession. Now these two processes of elite selection have been decoupled. In light of this, Khamenei’s inner circle have seemed willing to entertain the idea of reintegrating the more politically amenable section of the reformists – often called ‘state reformists’ by their critics – as a means of stabilizing the system. Unlike the presidential race of 1997, when the establishment was taken by surprise by the success of the so-called ‘left flank’ of the political class, this time they were prepared for a moderate candidate, even if he wasn’t their first choice. Khamenei and his closest allies may also have realized that when hardline Principalists (Osulgarayan) control every branch of the state, the supreme leader himself becomes a lightning rod for pent-up anger at the system, making it harder to deflect blame for corruption and mismanagement.

Yet the reasons for this reintegration go beyond intra-elite manoeuvrings. The nationwide women-led protests that erupted in 2022, as well as the ethno-national uprisings across Kurdistan and Sistan-Baluchistan provinces during the same period, saw the emergence of powerful anti-systemic forces that rejected the Islamic Republic and its political class tout court. No politician, except the most intransigent ones on the right, could fail to recognize their social and cultural reverberations. Pezeshkian was among a tiny handful of parliamentarians to publicly condemn the fate of Mahsa Jina Amini shortly after it became a national news story. He also mentioned her several times during his presidential campaign, signalling the enduring legacy of the movement and the widespread anger over its brutal suppression.  

This period of unrest coincided with an unprecedented wave of teachers’ strikes and labour militancy, as Iran’s downwardly mobile middle class, clobbered by double-digit inflation and radicalized by regular cycles of protest and repression, began to mobilize for change. Recent years have seen a pronounced deterioration in living standards, affecting millions of Iranians in the cities and provinces, from the salariat to the working poor. The country’s economic woes have been compounded by the marginalization of reformists, a clampdown on civil liberties, and the pursuit of a reactionary agenda around the politics of social reproduction and population control. US-led sanctions have accelerated the devaluation of the currency, causing many Iranians to channel their savings into the stock market or cryptocurrency.

The Iranian state is therefore facing a plethora of structural contradictions. The supreme leader’s office and highest echelons of the IRGC initially responded by doubling down on ‘national security’ and deterring outside incursions. Though this strategy could claim some success on its own terms, it was hardly a recipe for stability, let alone prosperity, and it failed to address the causes of spiralling domestic discontent. After Raisi’s death, it became clear that a significant part of the power elite and the wider political class did not believe that the radical Principalists – whose most extreme cadre is represented by the Endurance Front (Jebheh-ye paidari) – were capable of managing the crisis, or even understanding its stakes. Effective adaptation meant widening the sphere of political decision-making, albeit in a highly controlled fashion. 

Enter Pezeshkian. His presidential campaign had a slow start, and he did not perform well in the first televised debates. Despite his stint in the health ministry his national profile was meagre, and he was seen as lacking requisite experience. Endorsements from Khatami and other leading reformists, as well as former political prisoners and prominent intellectuals, failed to move the dial. The first round of voting saw the lowest ever turnout for a presidential election in the history of the Islamic Republic: a dismal 39.9%. Among the 60% that refused to vote, some were unwilling to confer legitimacy upon the system, while others were simply apathetic, no longer believing that the presidency could affect their daily lives, given the overarching authority of the supreme leader and other political, legal, religious and economic power centres. Yet Pezeshkian benefited from the shoddy performance of the system’s favoured candidate, the former mayor of Tehran and current Majles Speaker Mohammad-Baqer Qalibaf, who crashed to a humiliating 14% of the vote amid swirling accusations of corruption.

Almost every Iranian president to date has come to blows with the supreme leader when they have tried to pursue their own agendas. From Abolhassan Banisadr in 1981 to Mohammad Khatami in the 2000s, to the more recent administrations of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and even Hassan Rouhani, relations have inevitably deteriorated, often leading to estrangement and finally the president’s expulsion from the real sites of power. In his campaign, Pezeshkian decided to address this issue by openly discussing the limitations of the president’s office. He told voters that he was not a miracle-worker, that his authority was constrained, and that he could only bring about change in areas under his immediate control. In those beyond his remit, he pledged to enter negotiations on behalf of the people. He would not confront the entrenched interests at the heart of the system but rather work with them constructively. This brand of centrism is a far cry from the Khatami years, where parliamentary democracy and neoliberal globalization were thought to represent the End of History, and from the more radical promises of ‘political development’ (towse’eh-ye siyasi): a common euphemism for democratization and constitutional reform. Yet it nonetheless represents a significant break with the past three years.

In the second-round runoff, Pezeshkian vied with the hard-right Principalist Said Jalili, a onetime nuclear negotiator and secretary of the Supreme National Security Council. Among Jalili’s key supporters were Covid-denialists, antisemitic conspiracy theorists, radical autarkists and absolutist theocrats. His programme combined an ultra-conservative cultural politics with a pseudo-populist economic offer which tapped into undercurrents of resentment. He promised to protect Iran’s most vulnerable citizens while tackling the corruption and rentierism of its crony-capitalist class. In response, reformists joined with the centre right, warning of the ‘Talibanization’ of Iran and its transformation into an Islamist North Korea should Jalili and his ‘shadow government’ take power. Fear of this prospect was enough to push voter participation to just under 50%. In the final tally, Jalili won 13.5 million votes to Pezeshkian’s 16.4 million, reflecting the growing polarization of the polity. The significant decline in the conservative vote share – Raisi received 18 million in the previous election – indicates that many moderates abandoned Jalili for Pezeshkian. Yet the dismal turnout rate, down from 73% in 2017, suggests that the politics of lesser evilism and damage control are now delivering diminishing returns.   

Pezeshkian’s campaign pledges were short on detail, but they aimed to address three main areas. The first was civil liberties. The candidate opposed the hard right’s clampdown on the public sphere – the ever-tightening regulation of women’s attire and gender relations, the increasingly stringent censorship laws, the looming threat of a restricted ‘national internet’ – and vowed to do everything he could to reverse these trends.

The second was foreign policy, widely seen as inseparable from Iran’s stagnant domestic economy. Pezeshkian promised he would try to salvage the nuclear deal, free Iran from the debilitating ‘cage of sanctions’ and de-escalate tensions with the US and Europe. This, he argued, would mean standing firm against radicals who seek to sabotage negotiations, choosing ‘expertise’ over ‘ideology’, improving ties with Iran’s regional neighbours and establishing more balanced relations between East and West.

Finally, Pezeshkian stressed the need to deal with soaring inflation, which was above 40% throughout 2023 and early 2024. His powerful coalition of political and economic interests advocated a series of measures to solve the crisis: market liberalization, deflation of the ‘bloated’ state sector, the stemming of middle-class capital flight, the empowerment of the private sector (as opposed to the crony-capitalist parastatal sector), and the courting of foreign investment. They believe this will fix the inefficient labour market and counterbalance the outsized influence of powerful religious foundations (bonyads) and assorted IRGC-linked firms and subcontractors.

In each of these areas, Pezeshkian’s policies could in theory be materially consequential for millions of Iranians. Internet access has been essential to the country’s democracy movement as well as individual freedom of expression. It has also been decisive for countless small traders and businesses in staving off bankruptcy. The Guidance Patrol’s heavy-handed policing of dress codes has violated the basic rights of millions of women, and their horrific actions, frequently caught on camera and broadcast across social media, have inflicted huge reputational damage on the system, provoking disgust even among many religious traditionalists. Reining them in would mark an advance for both the Iranian people and the regime.

In the realm of foreign policy, there is no evidence that the fundamental tenets of the Islamic Republic’s security doctrine are up for negotiation. Ayatollah Khamenei and leading figures in the IRGC have spent decades building up what is today known as the ‘Axis of Resistance’. They see it as an indispensable part of the Islamic Republic’s ability to protect the country from foreign threats and imperialist interference. While a turn towards proactive diplomacy may effect a degree of de-escalation, with potentially beneficial results, it will not change this essential part of the Islamic Republic’s defence doctrine. There is also a large question mark over whether any US president, Democrat or Republican, would be willing to spend a modicum of political capital breathing new life into a deal with the Iranian state.

As for the economy, the conviction that ‘expertise’ will save the day rings hollow, as does the idea that Pezeshkian will be able to pass his measures with a weak mandate and a parliament baying for his blood. Developing an effective technocracy would not be inconsequential, but nor would it circumvent the structural drivers of inflation and falling living standards. The incoming president seems to be aware that he must secure at least a modicum of popular consent for any reform programme. In late 2019, Rouhani applied a disastrous round of shock therapy by removing fuel subsidies, devastating working-class Iranians and sparking mass protests in which hundreds were killed. Reluctant to repeat this mistake, Pezeshkian insists he will only increase fuel prices with the hamrahi of the people – meaning their ‘participation’ or approval. Will it be forthcoming?

Pezeshkian has already made clear that his government will rely on a familiar cast of veteran politicians, technocrats and administrators. Two high-profile ministers in the Rouhani administration, Mohammad Javad Zarif and Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi, were at the forefront of his campaign. His power bloc includes the neoliberals of the Executives of Construction of Iran Party, moderate senior clergymen, former and current elements of the Revolutionary Guard, and even some purged university professors. This fraction of the ruling class does not want to upset the apple cart. One of the main reasons they flocked to Pezeshkian was the hope that he could bring the economy under control, stabilize the domestic arena and calm international tensions in the shadow of the Gaza genocide.

Yet they also know that something needs to change. The status quo is becoming untenable and much of the population is at breaking point. Their solution is to mollify the urban middle classes and provide some concessions in the cultural and social spheres so as to prevent further brain drain and capital flight. They not only stand to profit personally from expanding the private sector and attracting foreign capital; this gambit will also allow them to check the parastatal sector and its undue political influence. To secure higher levels of foreign investment, they may have to improve relations with the West and secure the removal of US secondary sanctions. But they are aware that this agenda will be highly circumscribed by the supreme leader’s office and security-military establishment.

What this amounts to is a possible shift in tone, style, competency, policy priorities and ‘governance’ strategies, within clearly defined limits. This may well be registered in Iranians’ everyday lives, but it will have little bearing on the deep socio-economic problems by which the theocratic republic is afflicted. These will continue to cause disruption over the coming years, which will in turn elicit state repression in the name of ‘public order’. Once the next major crisis hits, the middle and working classes are unlikely to stay passive in the hope that the Pezeshkian government will finally deliver for them. They have been disappointed too many times to rest on such laurels.

Read on: Eskandar Sadeghi-Boroujerdi, ‘Rules of the Game’, Sidecar.