Anticipate the agenda of Iran’s incoming president

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Mr. Pezeshkian stands out as a notable figure within Iran’s political landscape, identified as a “reformist” in the context specific to the Islamic Republic’s ruling elite. Unlike the liberal-minded reformists often associated universally with democracy and human rights, Iran’s reformists are a distinct ideological faction within the ruling clergy. They advocate for a moderated interpretation of the regime’s principles, believing it could better serve both the clerical establishment and Iranian society.

Historically, reformists led the administration from 1997 to 2005 and played a coalition role during Hassan Rouhani’s presidency from 2013 to 2021, a period marked by efforts towards a freer and more democratic society. However, in the 2024 election, promises of further democratic reforms were notably absent from their campaign rhetoric, reflecting the challenging political environment shaped by recurrent waves of dissent and state repression since the 1990s. Many reformist leaders themselves have faced imprisonment amidst political crackdowns, underscoring their limited influence over pivotal centers of power such as the Supreme Leader’s Office, the Guardian Council, the IRGC, and the Supreme National Security Council.

Mr. Pezeshkian’s presidential campaign strategy in 2024 mirrored Hassan Rouhani’s approach in 2013, focusing on economic hardship exacerbated by Western sanctions and criticizing conservative rivals for their hardline anti-Western stance. Key to his campaign was the endorsement of Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s former foreign minister instrumental in the 2015 nuclear deal negotiations. While Zarif does not align strictly with reformist ideology, his support highlighted Pezeshkian’s diplomatic approach aimed at easing tensions through negotiations with the West, a stark contrast to the previous administration’s alignment with Russia and China under Ebrahim Raisi.

However, Pezeshkian’s foreign policy vision faced direct criticism from Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who dismissed notions of achieving prosperity through improved relations with the US, emphasizing American responsibility for the nuclear deal’s dissolution. Khamenei, a pivotal figure under Iran’s constitution, maintains ideological hostility towards Western powers while advocating for closer ties with Russia and China, reflecting a shift in Iran’s geopolitical strategy towards Eastern alliances.

Despite the president’s role as Iran’s highest-ranking diplomat, crucial aspects of Iranian foreign policy, including operations conducted by the Quds Force in Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen, remain under the exclusive purview of Khamenei. This highlights the inherent limitations on presidential authority and the significant influence wielded by the Supreme Leader in shaping Iran’s regional policies and security doctrines.

Nonetheless, the presidency offers avenues for indirect influence through diplomatic initiatives and policy advocacy within Iran and on the global stage. Examples include behind-the-scenes lobbying efforts that facilitated the acceptance of the 2015 nuclear deal despite hardline resistance, showcasing the potential for reformists to subtly influence public discourse and policy direction.

Pezeshkian and Iran’s reformists, the challenge lies in navigating these constraints to fulfill promises of dismantling barriers erected by hardliners and fostering a more open society. While their ambitions for substantial democratic reforms may be tempered by practical realities and entrenched power dynamics, the presidency remains a platform for incremental change and diplomatic engagement, offering glimpses of a different path forward within Iran’s complex political landscape.

Mr. Pezeshkian’s candidacy represents a continuation of Iran’s reformist tradition within the framework of the Islamic Republic, navigating between ideological imperatives, geopolitical realities, and domestic aspirations for change. His campaign underscores the delicate balance reformists must strike in pursuing their vision amidst entrenched opposition and shifting regional dynamics.

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