Massoud Pezeshkian wins Iranian elections

Iran’s presidential runoff election saw a major upset in which a reformist candidate who advocated moderate policies and improved ties with the West defeated a hard-line candidate, according to results released by the Interior Ministry on Saturday.

The winner was heart surgeon Massoud Pezeshkian, 69, who won 16.3 million votes to defeat Saeed Jalili, who received 13.5 million votes. It was a blow to the conservative wing of Iran’s ruling party and a major victory for the more moderate reformists who had been marginalized in politics for the past few years.

According to the Ministry of Interior, polls closed at midnight and some 30.5 million votes were cast, giving a turnout of around 50%, about 10 percentage points higher than in the first round.

The first round saw the lowest turnout ever as many Iranians boycotted the polls in protest, but the prospect of a hardline government that has reinforced strict social norms such as making the hijab mandatory for women and maintained a defiant stance in negotiations to lift international economic sanctions appears to have encouraged Iranians to vote.

“Without your friendship, compassion and trust, the difficult road ahead would not be smooth.” Pezechkian posted on social media: In another post after his victory, he thanked the young people who “came to work for Iran with love and sincerity,” saying:It shone a light of hope and confidence for the future.”

During the election campaign, Pezechkian recognized that rebuilding the economy was closely linked to foreign policy, particularly the conflict with the West over its nuclear program, and he expressed his willingness to negotiate the lifting of sanctions.

He has said he opposes compulsory hijab laws, but when it comes to Iranian hostility toward Israel, that is a matter of national policy set at the highest levels and from which the next president is unlikely to deviate.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei holds the most power in the government, but analysts say the next president will set domestic policy and influence the direction of foreign policy.

“A reform-minded president, for all his past limitations and failures, would still be quite good and would provide some important constraints on authoritarianism in the Islamic Republic,” said Nader Hashemi, a professor of Middle East studies at George Washington University.

Pezeshkian’s supporters took to the streets before dawn on Saturday, honking horns, dancing and cheering outside campaign offices in many cities, including his hometown of Tabriz, after his victory was announced. Congratulations to the Iranian people They went to the polls to support Pezeshkian’s election slogan, “Save Iran.”

“The era of the minority ruling the majority is over,” said Ali Akbar Behmanesh, a reformist politician and head of Pezeshkian’s campaign in Mazandaran province. “We celebrate the victory of wisdom over ignorance,” he added in the post. About X.

Some of Mr. Jalili’s conservative supporters He said on social media He said that regardless of who won, the turnout was a victory for the Islamic Republic and that he expected the new government to work to bridge the rifts between political factions.

“Once again, the great will of the Iranian people has been demonstrated, and we have defeated the enemies of the revolution, the regime and the Islamic homeland, especially the evil attempts The Western Zionist Media Empire’s Plans,In a statement, Khamenei congratulated the winners and called for the country to unite for prosperity.

The special election was called after President Ebrahim Raisi died in a helicopter crash in May. Pezechkian will serve a new four-year term.

Iran’s elections are not free or fair by Western standards — candidates are vetted by a 12-member Guardian Council made up of six clerics and six jurists — but the government has long viewed voter turnout as a sign of legitimacy.

The two candidates in the runoff election are from opposite ends of Iran’s constrained political spectrum and represent different visions for Iran that are influencing domestic and regional politics.

In the days before the election, Pezeshkian’s rallies drew larger, younger crowds, and prominent politicians such as former foreign minister Mohammed Javad Zarif joined him on the campaign trail, saying the choice was “day or night.”

The message that voters should fear Jalili and go to the polls appears to have resonated.

“I’m going to vote because if I don’t vote, it might not topple the Islamic Republic, but it will help elect a hardline president that I don’t accept,” Ghazal, a 24-year-old fashion designer in the capital, Tehran, said in a telephone interview. Like other interviewees, she asked to only give her first name for fear of drawing government attention.

Sedighe, a 41-year-old pediatrician in Tehran, also gave up his boycott and voted for Pezeshkian on Friday, even though he said by phone that he didn’t expect any president to bring about the meaningful changes people want.

“I voted because I believe in small, incremental changes to make our lives a little better,” she said, “and if we have a president who can or wants to make those small changes, that’s enough for now.”

Pezeshkian, a veteran of the Iran-Iraq War, served in parliament for 16 years, including as deputy speaker and health minister for four years. After his wife died in a car accident, he raised his children as a single father and has never remarried, a rarity in Iran. That, along with his identity as an Azerbaijani, an ethnic minority in Iran, endeared him to many voters. He campaigned with his daughter at all his rallies and major speeches.

Many conservatives across party lines voted for Pezeshkian, saying Jalili was too extreme and would deepen tensions in the country.

“Jalili will not be able to unite the Iranian people,” said Saeed Hajati, a conservative who said he would vote for Pezeshkian during a town-hall-style meeting Thursday streamed on the Clubhouse app. “He will further divide us. We need someone who can bridge these divisions.”

Pezeshkian pledged to work with his rivals to solve Iran’s many challenges.

Jalili campaigned on a message of defending the revolution’s ideals and continuing to resist challenges such as sanctions and nuclear negotiations. He congratulated the winners on Saturday and said he wanted to help the government tackle the country’s problems.

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

Iranian reformists said Pezeshkian’s campaign was a boost for their political movement, which was marginalized and abandoned by many at home and abroad in the 2021 parliamentary and last presidential elections, a year in which leading candidates were disqualified and those who remained faced disillusioned voters.

Many Iranians have called for an end to authoritarian clerical rule in a series of protests, including a women-led uprising in 2022, with crowds chanting “conservatives, reformists, the game is over”.

The government has brutally cracked down on opposition, killing more than 500 people and arresting tens of thousands in the latest unrest. Widespread anger and loss of hope is reflected in the fact that half of the eligible voters – some 61 million people – did not vote in the latest election, believing that voting for the government would be a betrayal of all the victims.

Mahsa, a 34-year-old accountant in Isfahan, refused to vote, saying by phone that he could not accept the logic of having to choose between bad and even worse.

“I see this election as government propaganda, a kind of ridiculous mask that everything is controlled by a dictator.”

The winner faces many challenges: an economy weakened by years of international sanctions, an increasingly disgruntled electorate and a geopolitical trap that has twice brought Iran to the brink of war this year. Many Iranians accuse the government of destroying the economy, restricting social freedoms and isolating the country.

During his tenure, Raisi oversaw a strategy to expand Iran’s regional influence and strengthen ties with Russia and China. Iranian-backed militant groups expanded across the Middle East and acquired more advanced weaponry. And after President Donald J. Trump withdrew the United States from the nuclear deal in 2018, Iran’s nuclear program advanced to weapons-level levels.

As the war between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip escalates, Iran-backed militant proxies have opened new fronts against Israel from Yemen to Lebanon. These tensions brought Iran to the brink of war with Israel in April and with the United States in February.

Iran’s hostility toward Israel and support for the Palestinians are part of the core principles of its ruling regime and are unlikely to change with the new president taking office. Indeed, in interviews with Iranian media, Pezechkian expressed his intention to negotiate with all countries except Israel.

Rayleigh Niconazar and Alisa J. Rubin Contributed report.

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