Iran’s reformist candidate jolts presidential race with nuclear pitch

Outsider Masoud Pezeshkian rattles hardliners by pressing for closer relations with west and softer stance on hijab

Iranians watch Masoud Pezeshkian on the screen during a debate of the presidential candidates. Photograph: Atta Kenare/AFP via Getty

The reformist contender in Iran’s presidential election has put his hardline rivals on the back foot by thrusting the revival of nuclear talks with world powers and the compulsory hijab at the centre of the political debate.

On the campaign trail this week, Masoud Pezeshkian has made clear that if he were to win the June 28th vote, he would seek improved relations with the West over Iran’s nuclear programme to ease US sanctions and would take a softer stance on requiring women to cover their heads.

His focus on contentious issues has rattled rivals, underscoring how authorities’ surprise decision to approve the reformist’s candidacy has shaken up an election that many had expected to be a predictable contest between regime-approved conservatives.

The 69-year-old’s strategy is part of his efforts to woo disillusioned voters, particularly among the younger generations, by convincing them that presidential elections in the theocracy do matter and that the outcome of next week’s vote could usher in change.


Turnout fell to a record low in the last presidential election, with many voters staying away to avoid legitimising the regime and to express their anger with what they saw as a flawed process.

To energise reformist voters, the former health minister has laid out a starkly different policy platform in an election hastily called after President Ebrahim Raisi, a hardline cleric, was killed in a helicopter crash last month.

Six presidential candidates: top, Saeed Jalili, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, Masoud Pezeshkian; and, bottom, Alireza Zakani, Mostafa Pourmohammadi and Amir-Hossein Ghazizadeh Hashemi. Photograph: Abedin Taherkenareh/EPA

“I have come to address your problems ... to be the voice of those whose voices are not heard,” Pezeshkian told a rally. “Generation Z’s problem is us. They want change, but we have not changed. They want innovation, but we have not been into innovation.”

He has championed talks to lift sanctions imposed by the US because of Iran’s nuclear programme, a “disaster” for the republic’s ailing economy that have fuelled corruption within the regime.

Pezeshkian, a surgeon, has also argued that there are no Islamic texts that permit authorities to harass or arrest women for not wearing the hijab. The topic remains highly sensitive since mass anti-regime protests in 2022 following the death of Mahsa Amini, a young woman who died in police custody after being arrested over the hijab.

Leading hardline candidates have struggled to respond to Pezeshkian’s campaign, with Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, the speaker of parliament widely seen as front-runner, and Saeed Jalili, a senior regime figure, both conspicuously vague on the nuclear crisis and the hijab.

Their core supporters, which include diehard regime loyalists, want no relaxation of the hijab laws and are ideologically opposed to engaging with the West or making significant concessions to lift US sanctions.

Electoral posters in Tehran. Photograph: Atta Kenare/AFP via Getty

But they are also aware that a large constituency of Iranians are desperate for sanctions relief and improved relations with the West, and are enraged by the regime’s social restrictions, including the hijab law.

Pezeshkian’s challenge lies in convincing millions of Iranians who have lost faith in elections to vote so that he has a shot at defeating his rivals, or at least forcing a second round.

Just 48 per cent of voters turned out for the 2021 presidential election that brought Raisi to power. Spoiled ballots outnumbered those cast for the sole reformist candidate, Abdolnaser Hemmati, as millions of Iranians boycotted the poll.

Analysts said Pezeshkian, who is regarded as having broader appeal than Hemmati, would need a far higher turnout to break through in the race. Crucially, Pezeshkian’s candidacy has been backed by the reformist establishment, including Javad Zarif, a former foreign minister who is one of Iran’s most high-profile figures.

Alongside Pezeshkian in a question-and-answer session broadcast on state television, Zarif reminded voters that while key decisions had to be approved by the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the president still had significant influence on economic and foreign policies.

“Without a reasonable foreign policy ... we cannot push for economic benefits ... and cannot even have good relations with our friends,” Zarif said. He highlighted that after the nuclear accord was implemented in 2016, leading to sanctions relief, Iran’s inflation fell from about 40 per cent to single digits, spurring double-digit economic growth.

That progress was reversed after former US president Donald Trump abandoned the accord in 2018 and imposed waves of sanctions on Iran. Raisi’s hardline government held indirect talks with the Biden administration on reviving the deal, but they made little progress as Tehran aggressively expanded its nuclear activity.

Zarif held up economic charts as he blamed hardliners’ policies for runaway inflation and other economic problems. “People, see what has happened to your inflation?” he said. “People, see what has happened to your economic growth? People, see what has happened to your oil sales?”

Pezeshkian’s campaign faces the uphill task of motivating Iran’s disillusioned voters in contrast to a conservative base that is easily mobilised.

“I don’t even know who the candidates are and don’t follow their news,” said Maryam, a 45-year-old private sector employee who had voted for reformists before. “Neither me nor anyone I know would vote.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2024

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