Masoud Pezeshkian Wins Iranian Presidency, Defeating Hard-Liner Saeed Jalili

Masoud Pezeshkian
Mohammad Javad Zarif

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Reformist candidate Masoud Pezeshkian won Iran’s runoff presidential election Saturday, defeating hard-liner Saeed Jalili by promising to reach out to the West and ease enforcement on the country’s mandatory headscarf law after years of sanctions and protests squeezing the Islamic Republic.

Pezeshkian pledged not to make radical changes to Iran’s Shiite theocracy during his campaign and has long maintained that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is the ultimate authority on all matters of state in the country. However, even Pezeshkian’s modest goals will face challenges from an Iranian government still largely controlled by hard-liners, the ongoing Israel-Hamas war in the Gaza Strip, and Western concerns over Tehran enriching uranium to near-weapons-grade levels.

A vote count provided by authorities declared Pezeshkian the winner with 16.3 million votes, compared to Jalili’s 13.5 million in Friday’s election. Overall, Iran’s Interior Ministry reported that 30 million people participated in the election, which was held without internationally recognized observers.

Supporters of Pezeshkian, a heart surgeon and long-time lawmaker, took to the streets of Tehran and other cities before dawn to celebrate as his lead over Jalili, a hard-line former nuclear negotiator, grew.

“Dear people of Iran, the elections are over and this is just the beginning of our cooperation,” Pezeshkian wrote on the social platform X, which is still blocked in Iran. “The difficult path ahead will not be smooth except with your companionship, empathy and trust. I extend my hand to you and I swear on my honor that I will not leave you alone on this path. Do not leave me alone.”

Pezeshkian’s victory still places Iran at a delicate juncture, with heightened tensions in the Middle East due to the Israel-Hamas war, Iran’s advancing nuclear program, and a looming election in the United States that could jeopardize any chance of a rapprochement between Tehran and Washington. Pezeshkian’s win was not a landslide over Jalili, meaning he will need to navigate Iran’s internal politics carefully as the doctor has never held a sensitive, high-level security position.

The first round of voting on June 28 saw the lowest turnout in the history of the Islamic Republic since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Iranian officials have long emphasized voter turnout as a sign of support for the country’s Shiite theocracy, which has been under pressure due to years of sanctions crippling Iran’s economy, mass demonstrations, and intense crackdowns on any dissent.

Government officials, including Khameni, the supreme leader, predicted higher turnout as voting began, with state television broadcasting images of modest lines at some polling stations. However, online videos purportedly showed some polls empty while a survey of several dozen locations in Tehran revealed light traffic and a heavy security presence on the streets.

Authorities reported turnout in Friday’s vote at 49.6%, still historically low for an Iranian presidential election. They counted 607,575 voided votes — which often reflect a form of protest by those who feel obligated to cast a ballot but reject both candidates.

“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 to be optimistic 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 reaching out to Iran’s various ethnicities. He represents the first president from western Iran in decades — something people hope will benefit the country as those in the western part are considered more tolerant due to the ethnic and religious diversity in their region.

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

Iran is also enriching uranium to near-weapons-grade levels and maintains a stockpile large enough to build several nuclear weapons, should it choose to do so. And while Khamenei remains the ultimate decision-maker on matters of state, whichever man ultimately wins the presidency could steer the country’s foreign policy towards either confrontation or cooperation 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, similarly congratulated Pezeshkian.

There was no immediate response from the U.S.

The campaign also repeatedly touched on the potential consequences if former President Donald Trump, who unilaterally withdrew America from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018, won the November election. Iran has held indirect talks with President Joe Biden’s administration, although there has been no clear progress towards curbing Tehran’s nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions.

Although identifying with reformists and relative moderates within Iran’s theocracy during the campaign, Pezeshkian simultaneously honored 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.”

More than 61 million Iranians over the age of 18 were eligible to vote, with about 18 million of them between 18 and 30. Voting was scheduled to end at 6 p.m. but was extended until midnight to boost participation.

The late President Ebrahim Raisi, who died in a May helicopter crash, was seen as a protégé of Khamenei and a potential successor as supreme leader.

Still, many knew him for his involvement in the mass executions that Iran conducted in 1988, and for his role in the bloody crackdowns on dissent that followed protests over the 2022 death of Mahsa Amini, a young woman detained by police for allegedly improperly wearing the mandatory headscarf, or hijab.