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Source: Bloomberg

Jul 8, 2024

A Reformist Heart Surgeon Confronts Iran’s Ultra-Conservatives

By Golnar Motevalli

How far the new reformist Iranian president, Masoud Pezeshkian, can go in changing policy in the Islamic Republic will depend on Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country’s ultimate authority.

The cardiac surgeon enters office with the ruling clerics widely unpopular and in desperate need of respite from internal dissent.

On the face of it Pezeshkian marks a sharp departure from ultraconservative predecessor Ebrahim Raisi, whose death in a helicopter crash triggered the snap election.

He’s the first non-cleric to be elected president since Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, with whom he shares an appeal to the middle classes but differs in that he’s not an ideologue.

Pezeshkian promised the removal of sanctions, a revived nuclear deal with the West and an easier life for Iranians who feel stifled by soaring inflation and strict laws on attire, particularly for women who have been targeted by the security forces.

Pezeshkian knows as well as the Iranians who elected him that it won’t be up to him to get these things done. He needs buy-in from Khamenei, parliament and Iran’s powerful networks and institutions — such as the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps — that influence state decisions.

Pezeshkian must get a thumbs up from Khamenei before reviving talks with the US over sanctions relief. And if he wants warmer ties with Europe, how will that affect Tehran’s strengthening political and trade alliance with Russia amid the war in Ukraine?

With Iran’s main regional allies, Hamas and Hezbollah, locked in violent conflict with Israel, the Supreme Leader can ill afford political division or weakness.

But even in a system as closely controlled as Iran’s, there’s room for maneuver.

The question facing Pezeshkian as he prepares for office is how much he can rely on Khamenei and his aides for support.

Pezeshkian outside a polling station in Tehran on Friday.Photographer: Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images

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