Masoud Pezeshkian Wins Elections in Iran

In a surprise election in Iran, a reformist candidate who advocated moderate policies at home and improved relations with the West won a presidential runoff against his hardline rival, the Interior Ministry said on Saturday.

The reformist candidate, Masoud Pezeshkian, 69, a heart surgeon, won 16.3 million votes to defeat Saeed Jalili, who won 13.5 million votes. The result dealt a severe blow to the conservative faction and was a major victory for the reformist camp, which had been sidelined from politics in recent years.

According to the Interior Ministry, after polls closed at midnight, voter turnout stood at around 50 percent, about 10 percentage points higher than in the first round, when some 30.5 million votes were cast.

The first round had a record low turnout because many Iranians boycotted in protest. But the prospect of a hardline administration that would double down on tough social rules, including mandatory hijab for women, and remain defiant in negotiations to lift international economic sanctions, seemed to have spurred Iranians to show up.

Mr. Pezeshkian’s supporters took to the streets before dawn on Saturday, according to footage on social media and his campaign, honking, dancing and cheering outside his campaign offices in several cities, including his hometown of Tabriz, when initial results showed he was ahead. They also took to social media to congratulate Iranians for turning out to “save Iran,” a campaign slogan of Mr. Pezeshkian.

“The end of the minority’s rule over the majority,” Ali Akbar Behmanesh, a reformist politician and head of Mr. Pezeshkian’s campaign in Mazandaran province, told X. “Congratulations on the victory of wisdom over ignorance.”

Some conservative supporters of Mr Jalili said on social media that regardless of who won, the turnout was a victory for the Islamic Republic and they hoped the new administration would work to bridge divisions between political factions.

Although Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, wields the most power in government, analysts say the president could set domestic policy and shape foreign policy.

“A reformist president, despite all the limitations and failures of the past, is still significantly better: in one significant way he would put a limit on the authoritarianism of the Islamic Republic,” said Nader Hashemi, a professor of Middle Eastern studies at George Washington University.

The special election was held because President Ebrahim Raisi died in a helicopter crash in May. Mr. Pezeshkian’s new term will last four years.

Elections in Iran are not free or fair by Western standards, and candidate selection is closely scrutinized by the Guardian Council, a 12-person committee appointed by six clerics and six jurists. But the government has long viewed voter turnout as a sign of legitimacy.

The two candidates in the runoff, coming from opposite ends of Iran's narrow political spectrum, represented different visions for Iran, with implications for domestic and regional politics.

In the days before the election, Mr. Pezeshkian’s campaign rallies drew larger and younger crowds. Prominent politicians such as Mohammad Javad Zarif, a former foreign minister, campaigned for him and said it was “night or day.”

The message that voters should turn out for fear of Mr Jalili seemed to have resonated.

“I will vote because if I don't vote, the Islamic Republic will not be overthrown,” Ghazal, a 24-year-old fashion designer from Tehran, the capital, said in a telephone interview. Like others interviewed, she asked to be identified only by her first name for fear of attracting government attention.

Sedigheh, a 41-year-old pediatrician from Tehran, also abandoned her boycott and voted for Mr. Pezeshkian on Friday, even though she said by telephone that she had no hope that any president could bring about the meaningful changes people demand.

“I voted because I think we need small, incremental changes that will make our lives a little better,” she said, “and if there’s a president who can or will make those small changes, that’s enough for now.”

A veteran of the Iran-Iraq war, Mr. Pezeshkian served in Parliament for 16 years, including a stint as deputy speaker of Parliament and as health minister for four years. After his wife died in a car crash, he raised his children as a single father and never remarried. That, and his identity as an Azeri, one of Iran’s ethnic minorities, endeared him to many voters. He campaigned with his daughter at his side at every major rally and speech.

Many conservatives crossed party lines and voted for Mr. Pezeshkian because, they said, Mr. Jalili was too extreme and would exacerbate tensions at home.

Jalili cannot unite Iranians,” said Saeed Hajati, a conservative who said he was voting for Mr. Pezeshkian, during a town-hall-style meeting Thursday that was streamed on the Clubhouse app. “He will divide us even more, and we need someone who can bridge those divides.”

Mr. Pezeshkian campaigned on a promise to work with his rivals to solve Iran’s many challenges. In his final campaign video message, he told Iranians: “I am your voice, including the voice of the 60 percent whose voices were never heard and did not show up to vote.” He added: “Iran is for everyone, for all Iranians.”

Mr Jalili ran his campaign on the message that he would safeguard revolutionary ideals and stand firm in the face of challenges such as sanctions and nuclear negotiations.

In the days before the vote, senior politicians and clerics had called Mr Jalili “delusional,” compared 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.

Reformists in Iran said Mr. Pezeshkian’s campaign was a boost for their political movement, which many inside and outside the country had written off after being sidelined in parliamentary elections and the last presidential election, in 2021. That year, competitive candidates were disqualified, while those who remained faced a disillusioned electorate.

“The reformist movement has found new life in the country and the reformists have come with all their might to support it,” Ali Asghar Shaerdoost, a former member of parliament for the Reformist Party, said in a town hall-style meeting livestreamed on Clubhouse from Tehran.

Many Iranians have called for an end to the Islamic Republic’s rule in waves of protests, including a 2022 uprising led by women in which crowds chanted, “Conservatives, reformists, the game is over.”

The government has brutally repressed dissent, killing more than 500 people and arresting tens of thousands. The widespread anger and loss of hope was reflected in the fact that half of eligible voters, some 61 million, abstained from voting in these elections, saying that voting for the government would be a betrayal of all the victims.

Mahsa, a 34-year-old accountant from Isfahan, said by phone that she refused to vote and did not accept the logic that she would have to choose between bad and worse. “I see these elections as government propaganda, a kind of ridiculous mask behind which everything is controlled by a dictator.”

A daunting list of challenges awaits the victor: an ailing economy weakened by years of international economic sanctions, a frustrated electorate, and geopolitical traps that have brought Iran to the brink of war twice this year. Many Iranians blame the government for destroying the economy, limiting social freedoms, and isolating the country.

During Mr. Raisi’s tenure, he oversaw a strategy of expanding Iran’s regional influence and strengthening ties with Russia and China. Iran-backed militant groups expanded their reach and obtained more advanced weapons across the Middle East, and the country’s nuclear program advanced to threshold weapons levels following President Donald J. Trump’s withdrawal of the United States from the nuclear deal in 2018.

As the war between Israel and Hamas rages in Gaza, Iranian-backed proxy militants have opened new fronts against Israel from Yemen to Lebanon. Such tensions brought Iran to the brink of war with Israel in April and the United States in February.

Leily Nikounazar AND Alissa J. Rubin contributed to the writing of the report.

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