Iranian reformist Masoud Pezeshkian wins presidential election

Victor promises to ease hardline laws, but supports Khamenei and says he wants good ties with ‘all countries except Israel’; turnout at 49.8%, with 600,000 spoiled ballots

Iranian reformist candidate Masoud Pezeshkian after casting his ballot during the presidential runoff elections in Shareh Qods, west of Tehran on July 5, 2024 (ATTA KENARE / AFP)
Iranian reformist candidate Masoud Pezeshkian after casting his ballot during the presidential runoff elections in Shareh Qods, west of Tehran on July 5, 2024 (ATTA KENARE / AFP)

Reformist candidate Masoud Pezeshkian won Iran’s runoff presidential election, it was announced early Saturday, besting hard-liner Saeed Jalili by promising to reach out to the West and ease enforcement on the country’s mandatory headscarf law after years of sanctions and protests squeezing the Islamic Republic.

Pezeshkian promised no radical changes to Iran’s Shiite theocracy in his campaign and long has held Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as the final arbiter of all matters of state in the country.

He will also not lead change in Iran’s contentious relations with Israel, saying after he voted on Friday that should he win, he would “try to have friendly relations with all countries except Israel.”

But even Pezeshkian’s other modest aims will be challenged by an Iranian government still largely held by hard-liners.

A vote count offered by authorities put Pezeshkian as the winner with 16.3 million votes to Jalili’s 13.5 million in Friday’s election. Overall, Iran’s Interior Ministry said 30 million people voted in an election held without internationally recognized monitors.

Supporters of Pezeshkian, a heart surgeon and longtime lawmaker, entered the streets of Tehran and other cities before dawn to celebrate as his lead grew over Jalili, a hard-line former nuclear negotiator.

A policeman casts his vote for the presidential election in a polling station at the shrine of Saint Saleh in northern Tehran, Iran, July 5, 2024. (AP/Vahid Salemi)

“Dear people of Iran, the elections are over and this is just the beginning of our cooperation,” Pezeshkian wrote on the social platform X, which is still banned in Iran. “The difficult path ahead will not be smooth except with your companionship, empathy and trust. I extend my hand to you and I swear on my honor that I will not leave you alone on this path. Do not leave me alone.”

Pezeshkian’s win still sees Iran at a delicate moment, with tensions high in the Mideast over the Israel-Hamas war, Iran’s advancing nuclear program, and a looming election in the United States that could put any chance of a detente between Tehran and Washington at risk.

Pezeshkian’s victory also wasn’t a rout of Jalili, meaning he’ll have to carefully navigate Iran’s internal politics as the doctor has never held a sensitive, high-level security post.

Iranian presidential candidate and ultraconservative former nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili smiles while casting his vote at a polling station during the presidential election in Tehran, June 28, 2024. (Raheb Homavandi/AFP)

The first round of voting on June 28 saw the lowest turnout in the history of the Islamic Republic since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Iranian officials have long pointed to turnout as a sign of support for the country’s Shiite theocracy, which has been under strain after years of sanctions crushing Iran’s economy, mass demonstrations and intense crackdowns on all dissent.

Government officials up to Khamenei predicted a higher participation rate as voting got underway, with state television airing images of modest lines at some polling centers across the country.

However, online videos purported to show some polls empty while a survey of several dozen sites in the capital, Tehran, saw light traffic amid a heavy security presence on the streets.

Authorities put the turnout in Friday’s election at 49.6 percent, still historically low for an Iranian presidential election. They counted 607,575 voided votes in the contest — which often are a sign of protest by those who feel obligated to cast a ballot, but reject both candidates.

In this photo released by an official website of the office of the Iranian supreme leader, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei gestures in a ceremony to mark the Shiite holiday of Eid al-Ghadir, in Tehran, Iran, June 25, 2024. (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP)

“I don’t expect anything from him — I am happy that the vote put the brake on hard-liners,” said bank employee Fatemeh Babaei, who voted for Pezeshkian. “I hope Pezeshkian can return administration to a way in which all people can feel there is a tomorrow.”

Taher Khalili, a Kurdish-origin Iranian who runs a small tailor shop in Tehran, offered another reason to be hopeful while handing out candy to passersby.

“In the end, someone from my hometown and the west of Iran came to power,” Khalili said. “I hope he will make the economy better for small businesses.”

Pezeshkian, who speaks Azeri, Farsi and Kurdish, campaigned on outreach to Iran’s many ethnicities. He represents the first Iranian president from western Iran in decades — something people hope will aid the country as those in the west of the country are considered more tolerant because of the ethnic and religious diversity in their area.

The election came amid heightened regional tensions. In April, Iran launched its first-ever direct attack on Israel after a strike in Syria killed senior IRGC officials, while terrorist groups that Tehran arms in the region — such as the Lebanese Hezbollah and Yemen’s Houthi rebels — are engaged in the fighting and have escalated their attacks.

Iran is also enriching uranium at near weapons-grade levels and maintains a stockpile large enough to build several nuclear weapons, should it choose to do so. And while Khamenei remains the final decision-maker on matters of state, Pezeshkian could bend the country’s foreign policy.

In this March 30, 2005 file photo, an Iranian security official in protective clothing walks through part of the Uranium Conversion Facility just outside the city of Isfahan, Iran. (AP/Vahid Salemi)

The campaign also repeatedly touched on what would happen if former US president Donald Trump, who unilaterally withdrew America from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018, won the November election. Iran has held indirect talks with US President Joe Biden’s administration, though there’s been no clear movement back toward constraining Tehran’s nuclear program for the lifting of economic sanctions.

Though identifying with reformists and relative moderates within Iran’s theocracy during the campaign, Pezeshkian still honored Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard, on one occasion wearing its uniform to parliament. He repeatedly criticized the US and praised the Guard for shooting down an American drone in 2019, saying it “delivered a strong punch in the mouth of the Americans and proved to them that our country will not surrender.”

The late Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi, who died in a May helicopter crash, was seen as a protégé of Khamenei and a potential successor as supreme leader.

Still, many knew him for his involvement in the mass executions that Iran conducted in 1988, and for his role in the bloody crackdowns on dissent that followed protests over the 2022 death of Mahsa Amini, a young woman detained by police over allegedly improperly wearing the mandatory headscarf, or hijab.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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