Election of Iran’s Pezeshkian raises prospects of new nuclear talks with the West

For Israel, win for conservative candidate would have led West to up its pressure on Tehran, but newly elected reformist’s offer of negotiations will likely be embraced

Newly elected Iranian President Masoud Pezeshkian speaks during a visit to the shrine of the Islamic Republic's founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in Tehran, Iran, on July 6, 2024. (Atta Kenare/AFP)
Newly elected Iranian President Masoud Pezeshkian speaks during a visit to the shrine of the Islamic Republic's founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in Tehran, Iran, on July 6, 2024. (Atta Kenare/AFP)

Although the reformist camp was predicted to suffer voter apathy in the second round of Iran’s presidential election Friday, results proved otherwise. While turnout remained below the 50 percent mark, those who did vote decided against the conservatives and extremists.

The winner, Masoud Pezeshkian — with strong backing from his mentor, former foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif — succeeded in bringing voters to the second round after they were absent from the first.

This was no mean feat for the reformist camp, which, since the cancelation of the Iranian nuclear deal in 2018 by then-US president Donald Trump, has been nearly crushed by the conservatives with the approval of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

One of the explanations for the change last week is the fact that the Iranian public understood that after three years of violent oppression from the regime, it had a real chance to influence and determine at least some aspects of its fate. And that’s what happened.

The question now is how the new president will perform while surrounded by conservatives, some of whom are confrontational.

Most of the Iranian Parliament is conservative, and speaker Mohammad Qalibaf, who ran against Pezeshkian in the first round and was knocked out, has significant influence that can hobble the incoming president’s policies.

Iran’s hardline parliament speaker, Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, waves to the media while registering his name as a candidate for the June 28 presidential election at the Interior Ministry, in Tehran, Iran, June 3, 2024. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

Qalibaf, according to some reports, was the supreme leader’s preferred winner, and he enjoyed the support of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Before the first round, senior officials in the IRGC tried to convince ultraconservative candidate Saeed Jalili to quit so that Qalibaf would reach the second round. They didn’t succeed.

Now, the conservatives are sharply debating who was wrong: Was it Jalili, who didn’t quit before the first round, and therefore allowed a run-off and a reformist victory? Or was it the fact that Qalibaf didn’t quit, causing a split within the conservative camp in the first round, resulting in Pezeshkian’s ascent in the second?

A more important question is how relations between the new president and the IRGC will look. During Ebrahim Raisi’s tenure, relations between the presidency and the Guards were very good and deepened in many fields, especially regarding Iran’s military capabilities — with consequences that Israel encountered on April 13-14 with Tehran’s unprecedented missile and drone attack.

Pezeshkian now sits at the head of Iran’s National Security Council, which decided on the attack. To what extent he will manage to be independent and effective in making critical decisions remains to be seen. This is exactly the reason the IRGC wanted to place someone close to it in the presidency and supported Qalibaf.

In general, Pezeshkian is a riddle for the IRGC at this stage. In the Corps’ view, he is a man of Zarif and the hated government of former president Hassan Rouhani. During that era, the relationship between Iran’s Foreign Ministry and the conservative establishment was very tense.

The most notable incident was the publication of a recording in Iran in April 2021 in which then-foreign minister Zarif is heard complaining that the IRGC conducts its own foreign policy that often conflicts with the political line of the Reformists.

In the recording, he accused IRGC Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani, who was killed in a US drone strike in 2020, of harming the 2015 JCPOA nuclear agreement with the P5+1 countries. It is likely that this tension with Soleimani’s replacement, Esmail Qaani, will be replicated if talks with Washington advance.

Esmail Qaani, the head of Iran’s Quds Force, speaks during a ceremony on the occasion of the first anniversary of the death of the force’s previous head Qassem Soleimani, in Tehran, Iran, January 1, 2021. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)

Pezeshkian recognizes the IRGC’s concerns, and perhaps this is the reason why he dedicated one of his last campaign events to praying at the grave of Soleimani.

Soleimani had strained relations with Rouhani’s reformist establishment — not least due to the fact that he was very close to the supreme leader and often bypassed the president. There are no such concerns with Qaani, but despite this, there are fundamental IRGC suspicions toward the reformists, especially when Zarif is in the picture.

This is where the nuclear program comes in. Pezeshkian declared during the campaign that he supports removing sanctions on Iran through negotiations with the West. This was the main argument between him and the conservative candidates during the first two presidential debates.

Now, he has become president of a nuclear-threshold country without an agreement with the West and the global powers. He also understands that the previous agreement is irrelevant in the current situation, and that Iran will need to demonstrate major flexibility to reach a deal to remove the sanctions. The key decisions on how to proceed, however, will undoubtedly be made by the supreme leader.

In this photo released by the official website of the office of the Iranian Presidency, President Hassan Rouhani (R) meets Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel (L) on the sideline of the United Nations General Assembly at the UN Headquarters Sept. 24, 2019. (Iranian Presidency Office via AP)

From Israel’s perspective, the situation resembles the 2013 elections, which Rouhani won. At that point, Iran assaulted the world — with smiles. Rouhani won over the West with his ostensibly pragmatic approach, which led to the nuclear agreement two years later.

For Israel, the victory of an extremist candidate like Jalili would have isolated Iran diplomatically and perhaps also pushed the West to harden its stance. Now with Pezeshkian and his intention to open nuclear talks, it is believed that his outstretched hand will not be pushed aside.

Translated from the original on The Times of Israel’s Hebrew site Zman Yisrael.

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