Pezeshkian and the Iranian supreme leader’s calculations

Pezeshkian and the Iranian supreme leader’s calculations

Newly-elected Iranian President Masoud Pezeshkian speaks during a visit in Tehran (File/AFP)
Newly-elected Iranian President Masoud Pezeshkian speaks during a visit in Tehran (File/AFP)
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The past few days have been burdened with messages, from Washington to Tehran via London and Paris. In a world with wide-open doors, elections are no longer a local matter. The importance increases when the results affect the future of economies, policies and arsenals.

When the news emerged about Masoud Pezeshkian winning the Iranian presidency, I was struck by the man’s features and biography. He did not come from a religious institution like a number of his predecessors, including Ali Khamenei, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Mohammed Khatami, Hassan Rouhani and Ebrahim Raisi. He has no fingerprints in the military or the security establishment, as he has put on an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps uniform only once, when he and his fellow MPs wore it in protest at the Guards’ designation as a terrorist organization.

Pezeshkian was born in the city of Mahabad, which in 1946 saw the birth of a Kurdish state that barely survived a year. His father is Azeri and his mother is Kurdish, which gives him the ability to understand the conditions and demands of minorities. He took the path of medicine and graduated as a cardiac surgeon. He entered the government as minister of health during the presidency of Khatami and represented Tabriz for five parliamentary terms.

The prevailing impression was that the Iranian spiritual guide would nominate the extreme conservative figure, Saeed Jalili, for the presidency and that Iran would push extremism to the forefront at a time when the American presidency seems within the reach of Donald Trump, who ordered the killing of Qassem Soleimani. This did not happen. Reading Iranian politics is not easy and sometimes requires patience similar to that of the country’s carpetmakers.

Why did the spiritual leader allow Pezeshkian to run in and win the presidential election? In 2021, the Guardian Council, which considers the eligibility of candidates, prevented him from participating in the race. In February, the council also threatened to reject Pezeshkian’s eligibility for the parliamentary elections due to his “lack of commitment to the principles of the revolution,” in reference to his position on the protests of 2022. But he was able to run due to an intervention by Supreme Leader Khamenei. In fact, Pezeshkian criticized the harshness of the response to the protests, especially regarding the killing of Mahsa Amini following her arrest, but he considered the demonstrations harmful to the country.

Reading Iranian politics is not easy and sometimes requires patience similar to that of the country’s carpetmakers

Ghassan Charbel

In recent years, Pezeshkian has presented himself as a “conservative with reformist tendencies.” He does not have a talent for rhetoric or manipulating the emotions of the masses and the marginalized, who one of his predecessors, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, used to address. He is a moderate man. A doctor who believes in science and controlling the limits of vocabulary. He is a pragmatist and a son of the regime. He knows the balance of power and the actual center of decision-making and he promotes, under this ceiling, the benefits of opening the window.

Pezeshkian did not hide the need to engage in negotiations with the West to lift sanctions, which he acknowledges are painful and have made the lives of many Iranians “miserable.” Khamenei certainly knew that Pezeshkian’s appearance in the presidential race would push Khatami, Mehdi Karroubi, Hassan Khomeini (a grandson of the founding guide) and Ali Akbar Nouri to support him.

There are multiple readings of Pezeshkian’s victory, despite the fact that the major and final decision on foreign and domestic affairs resides in Khamenei’s office. There are those who believe that the supreme leader may have thought that the arrival of a hard-liner like Jalili would exacerbate Iran’s already tense foreign relations — especially with the West’s conviction that Iran is very close to producing a nuclear weapon — and that Tehran needs a degree of calm both externally and internally to read the stormy international scene, especially if Trump wins back the title of US president. They also believe that Iran needs some time to consolidate and digest the successes achieved by Soleimani’s influence on some maps of the region.

The supreme leader may agree with some people’s suggestion that the Iranian regime has succeeded more abroad than it has at home, if the rates of poverty, unemployment and development are taken into consideration. In addition, Iran is involved in the Gaza war and supporting conflicts — and managing this complex scene requires cooling feelings at home. On the other hand, there are those who think that Khamenei preferred the arrival of a president who cannot have an influence on the future selection of a new spiritual guide, even if he revives the role or image of the reformists.

What are the limits of Iranian ambitions? What are Iran’s borders in the region? Is it satisfied with what it has achieved so far in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and in the “Palestinian paper,” or is it seeking more? Does it want to stop the gunfire in the region and secure this and that sea? Is it looking for an American acceptance of its new size and new role? Is it aspiring to reserve its position in a Russian-Chinese axis or desiring a distinctive status that does not condition its policy on the decisions of Moscow or Beijing?

Last week was full of messages, but some of them were easier to read than the Iranian news. Britain overturned 14 years of Conservative rule. Rishi Sunak is out, replaced by the Labour Party’s Keir Starmer. British institutions have proven that they operate without cracks or collapse.

On the other hand, the French elections revealed the depth of the divisions in the country, heralding years of turmoil. A young man named Emmanuel Macron gambled with a large fund placed by Charles de Gaulle in the Fifth Republic. He gambled and lost, and France lost with him.

In parallel, the American scenes were exciting and painful. President Joe Biden is trying to lift the weight of his 80s. He is placing more demands on his memory than it can manage and resisting advice to leave the race after his “injury.” Facing the wounded president is a boxer who is skilled at hitting below the belt and who mocks the burden of the 80s, despite standing at its threshold.

  • Ghassan Charbel is editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper. X: @GhasanCharbel

This article first appeared in Asharq Al-Awsat.

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