Masoud Pezeshkian Wins Elections in Iran

In a surprise election in Iran, reformist candidate Masoud Pezeshkian, who advocated moderate policies at home and improving relations with the West, won the presidential runoff, beating his hardline rival, the Interior Ministry said on Saturday morning.

Mr. Pezeshkian, 69, a heart surgeon, won 16.3 million votes to defeat hardline candidate Saeed Jalili, a blow to the conservative faction and a major victory for the reformist faction that had been excluded from politics in recent years. Mr. Jalili received 13.5 million votes.

After polls closed at midnight, voter turnout stood at 50 percent, about 10 percentage points higher than in the first round of the election with about 30.5 million total ballots cast, according to Iran's Interior Ministry. The first round saw record low voter turnout because many Iranians boycotted the vote in protest.

However, the prospect of a hardline government that would redouble its efforts to impose strict social rules, including requiring women to wear the hijab, and be reluctant to negotiate to lift sanctions, apparently prompted Iranians to turn out in slightly greater numbers.

Mr. Pezeshkian’s supporters took to the streets in the predawn hours on Saturday, according to footage on social media and his campaign, honking, dancing and cheering outside his campaign offices in several cities, including his hometown of Tabriz, when initial results showed he was ahead. They also took to social media to congratulate Iranians for turning out to “save Iran,” a campaign slogan of Mr. Pezeshkian.

“The end of the minority’s rule over the majority. Congratulations on the victory of wisdom over ignorance,” said Ali Akbar Behmanesh, a reformist politician and head of Mr. Pezeshkian’s campaign in Mazandaran province, in a post on X, formerly Twitter.

Some conservative supporters of Mr Jalili said on social media that regardless of who won, the higher turnout represented a victory for the Islamic Republic and that they hoped the new administration would work to bridge divisions within political factions.

Although Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, wields the most power within the government, analysts say the president is not without influence and can set domestic policy and shape foreign policy.

“A reformist president, despite all the limitations and failures of the past, is still significantly better: in one significant way he would put a limit on the authoritarianism of the Islamic Republic,” said Nader Hashemi, a professor of Middle Eastern studies at George Washington University.

The special election was held because former President Ebrahim Raisi died in a helicopter crash in May. Mr Pezeshkian's victory will start a new four-year term.

Elections in Iran are not free or fair by Western standards, and candidate selection is closely scrutinized by the Guardian Council, a 12-person committee appointed by six clerics and six jurists. The government has long viewed voter turnout as a sign of legitimacy.

In Friday's runoff election, voters faced a choice between two candidates from opposite ends of Iran's narrow political spectrum. They represented different visions for Iran, with implications for domestic and regional politics.

In the days leading up to the election, Mr. Pezeshkian’s campaign rallies drew larger and younger crowds. Prominent politicians such as former Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif campaigned for him across the country and told voters it was “night or day.” The message that voters should turn out for fear of Mr. Jalili resonated.

“I will vote because if I don't vote, the Islamic Republic will not be overthrown, but it will help elect a hardline president that I don't accept,” Ghazal, a 24-year-old fashion designer in Tehran, said in a telephone interview. Like others interviewed, she declined to be quoted by her last name to avoid attracting government attention.

Sedigheh, a 41-year-old pediatrician from Tehran, the capital, also ended her boycott and voted for Mr. Pezeshkian on Friday. She said in a telephone interview that she had no hope that he or any other president could make the significant changes people are demanding. Still, she said, “I voted because I think we need small, gradual changes that make our lives a little bit better, and if there is a president who can or wants to make those small changes, that’s enough for now.”

A veteran of the Iran-Iraq war, Mr. Pezeshkian served in parliament for 16 years, including a stint as deputy speaker of parliament and as Iran’s health minister for four years. After his wife died in a car crash, he raised his children as a single father and never remarried. That, and his identity as an Azeri, one of Iran’s ethnic minorities, endeared him to many voters. He campaigned with his daughter at his side at every major rally and speech.

Many conservatives crossed party lines and voted for Mr. Pezeshkian because, they said, Mr. Jalili was too extreme and would exacerbate tensions and divisions at home.

Jalili cannot unite Iranians; he will divide us even more, and we need someone who can bridge those divides,” said Saeed Hajati, a conservative who said he was voting for Mr. Pezeshkian, during a town hall-style meeting Thursday that was streamed on the Clubhouse app.

Mr. Pezeshkian campaigned on a promise to work with his rivals to solve Iran’s many challenges, because they were too formidable to overcome through infighting and division. In his final campaign video message, he told Iranians: “I am your voice, including the voice of the 60 percent whose voices were never heard and did not show up at the polls.” He added: “Iran is for everyone, for all Iranians.”

By contrast, Mr. Jalili campaigned across the country with the message that he would safeguard revolutionary ideals and maintain a defiant stance in the face of Iran's challenges, including sanctions and nuclear negotiations.

In the days leading up to the vote, several prominent politicians and clerics called Mr. Jalili “delusional,” compared him to the Taliban and warned that his presidency would put the country on a collision course with the United States and Israel.

Reformists in Iran have said Mr. Pezeshkian’s campaign was a boost for their political movement, which many inside and outside the country had dismissed because they were sidelined in parliamentary elections and the last presidential election, in 2021. That year, competitive candidates were disqualified, while those who remained faced apathy from voters disillusioned by how previous reformist presidents had promised change but failed to deliver.

“The reformist movement has found new life in the country and the reformists have come with all their might to support it,” Ali Asghar Shaerdoost, a former member of parliament for the Reformist Party, said at a town hall-style rally livestreamed on Clubhouse from Tehran.

Many Iranians have called for an end to the Islamic Republic’s rule in waves of protests, including a 2022 uprising led by women in which crowds chanted, “Conservatives, reformists, the game is over.”

The government has brutally repressed dissent, killing more than 500 people and arresting tens of thousands. The widespread anger and loss of hope was reflected in the fact that half of eligible voters, some 61 million, abstained from voting in these elections, saying that voting for the government would be a betrayal of all the victims.

Mahsa, a 34-year-old accountant from Isfahan, said in a telephone interview that she refused to vote and did not accept the logic that she would have to choose between “bad and worse.” She added: “I see these elections as government propaganda, a kind of ridiculous mask behind which everything is controlled by a dictator.”

The winner will face a daunting array of challenges: a struggling economy weakened by years of sanctions, a frustrated electorate and geopolitical pitfalls that have brought Iran to the brink of war twice this year.

Many Iranians accuse the government of destroying the economy, limiting social freedoms and isolating the country from the rest of the world; the elections represented a referendum of sorts on the government's ideologically oriented policies.

During Mr. Raisi’s tenure, he oversaw a strategy of expanding his country’s regional influence and strengthening ties with Russia and China. Iranian-backed militant groups expanded their reach and gained more advanced weapons across the Middle East, and the country’s nuclear program advanced to threshold weapons levels following President Donald J. Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal in 2018.

As the war between Israel and Hamas rages in Gaza, Iranian-backed proxy militants have opened new fronts against Israel from Yemen to Lebanon. Such tensions brought Iran to the brink of war with Israel in April and the United States in February.

Mr Raisi’s conservative government has also faced internal upheaval: some of the largest anti-government protests in decades, sparked by the country’s strict enforcement of the hijab law and fueled by a severe economic crisis.

Now, the Iranian economy has been hit by sanctions, mismanagement and corruption. Inflation has skyrocketed and the value of the currency has collapsed.

During the election debates, Mr. Pezeshkian said he recognized that resolving the economic crisis was inextricably linked to foreign policy, particularly the clash with the West over the nuclear program, and that he would negotiate to lift sanctions.

“Pezeshkian’s surprise victory means that a segment of the electorate understands that while they cannot hope against hope for a better future, they can at least avoid a further deterioration of their situation,” said Ali Vaez, Iran director at the International Crisis Group.

Leily Nikounazar AND Alissa J. Rubin contributed to the writing of the report.

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