Masoud Pezeshkian, Reformist Candidate, Wins Iranian Presidential Runoff Election

Masoud Pezeshkian, a reformist candidate, won Iran’s presidential runoff election on Saturday, defeating hardliner Saeed Jalili. Pezeshkian’s victory came after he promised to reach out to the West and ease enforcement of the country’s mandatory headscarf law, offering a potential shift in direction after years of sanctions and protests that have strained the Islamic Republic.

While Pezeshkian pledged no radical changes to Iran’s Shiite theocracy during his campaign, emphasizing the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s authority on all state matters, his modest goals will face significant challenges. The Iranian government remains largely controlled by hardliners, the ongoing Israel-Hamas conflict in Gaza continues to escalate tensions, and Western nations remain concerned about Tehran’s enrichment of uranium to near-weapons-grade levels. Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium is enough to produce several nuclear weapons if it chooses to do so.

Authorities reported that Pezeshkian won with 16.3 million votes, compared to Jalili’s 13.5 million in Friday’s election. Overall, 30 million people participated in the election, representing a 49.6% turnout — an increase from the historically low turnout in the first round of voting on June 28, but lower than previous presidential races. The election was held without internationally recognized monitors.

Supporters of Pezeshkian, a heart surgeon and long-time lawmaker, took to the streets of Tehran and other cities before dawn to celebrate his victory as his lead over Jalili widened. Pezeshkian later visited the mausoleum of the late Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of the Islamic Revolution, and addressed journalists in a chaotic event.

“In this election, I didn’t give you false promises. I did not lie,” Pezeshkian said. “It’s been many years after the revolution that we come to the podium, we make promises and we fail to fulfill them. This is the biggest problem we have.”

Pezeshkian’s win comes at a delicate time for Iran, with heightened tensions in the Middle East and a looming election in the United States that could impact any potential detente between Tehran and Washington. Pezeshkian’s victory was not a decisive one, meaning he will need to carefully navigate Iran’s internal politics, given his lack of experience in sensitive, high-level security positions.

Government officials, including Khamenei, had predicted higher turnout as voting commenced. State television aired images of modest lines at some polling centers. However, online videos appeared to show empty polling stations, and a survey of several dozen sites in Tehran revealed light traffic and a heavy security presence on the streets.

Authorities reported 607,575 voided votes, which are often seen as a sign of protest from those who felt compelled to vote but rejected both candidates.

Khamenei praised the turnout on Saturday despite allegations of a boycott campaign “orchestrated by the enemies of the Iranian nation to induce despair and a feeling of hopelessness.”

“I would like to recommend Dr. Pezeshkian, the elected president, put his trust in God, the Compassionate, and set his vision on high, bright horizons,” Khamenei added.

Voters expressed cautious optimism.

“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 for hope 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 economy better for small businesses.”

Pezeshkian, who speaks Azeri, Farsi and Kurdish, campaigned on outreach to Iran’s diverse ethnic groups. He is the first president from western Iran in decades, a fact that many hope will benefit the country, as people in the west are considered more tolerant due to the region’s ethnic and religious diversity.

The election took place amidst heightened regional tensions. In April, Iran launched its first-ever direct attack on Israel over the Gaza conflict. Militia groups armed by Tehran, such as the Lebanese Hezbollah and Yemen’s Houthi rebels, are involved in the fighting and have escalated their attacks.

While Khamenei remains the final decision-maker on state matters, Pezeshkian’s leadership could influence Iran’s foreign policy toward either confrontation or collaboration with the West.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, which has reached a detente with Iran, sent his congratulations to Pezeshkian, emphasizing his “keenness to develop and deepen the relations that bring our two countries and peoples together.” Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has relied on Iranian-made drones in his war on Ukraine, also congratulated Pezeshkian.

Responding to questions from The Associated Press, the State Department deemed the Iranian election “not free or fair” and noted that “a significant number of Iranians chose not to participate at all.”

“We have no expectation these elections will lead to fundamental change in Iran’s direction or more respect for the human rights of its citizens,” the State Department added. “As the candidates themselves have said, Iranian policy is set by the supreme leader.”

However, the State Department said it would pursue diplomacy “when it advances American interests.”

Candidates repeatedly discussed the potential impact of former President Donald Trump’s possible return to the White House in the November election. Trump unilaterally withdrew America from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018. Iran has engaged in indirect talks with President Joe Biden’s administration, but no clear progress has been made toward constraining Tehran’s nuclear program in exchange for lifting economic sanctions.

Pezeshkian’s win saw Iran’s rial strengthen against the U.S. dollar on Saturday, trading at 603,000 to $1, down from 615,000 on Thursday. The rial was trading at 32,000 to $1 when the 2015 nuclear deal was reached.

While identifying with reformists and relative moderates within Iran’s theocracy during the campaign, Pezeshkian also expressed support for Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard, on one occasion wearing its uniform to parliament. He repeatedly criticized the United States 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 President Ebrahim Raisi, whose death in a May helicopter crash triggered the early election, was considered a protégé of Khamenei and a potential successor as supreme leader.

However, Raisi was also known for his involvement in the mass executions carried out by Iran in 1988, and for his role in the violent crackdowns on dissent following protests over the 2022 death of Mahsa Amini, a young woman detained by police for allegedly violating the mandatory headscarf, or hijab, rules.