‘Reformist’ Pezeshkian Wants $200B Investment To Transform Isolated Iran; Can He Undo The Ayatollah?

After years of tough conservative and ultra-conservative control, Iran has a “reformist’ President in Masoud Pezeshkian. A heart specialist by profession, will he be able to change the heart – and mind – of the unelected religious supremo who runs the country?

Masoud Pezeshkian was elected as the ninth President of Iran on July 7. The process of electing him through the clergy-scripted constitution of Iran came after the death of hardliner President Ebrahim Raisi in a helicopter crash in northern Iran in May.

The 69-year-old heart specialist, Pezeshkian (Pezeshk in Avesta means a doctor/physician. The Avestic compilation Ardibahesht Yasht enumerates five categories of Pezeshk), is among the numerous families in Iran that have retained Avestic suffixes to their names, which speak of their great antiquity.

He was born in 1954 in Mahabad, a city in the northwestern province of West Azerbaijan, to an Iranian father of Turkic origin and a Kurdish mother.

He has represented Tabriz in Iran’s parliament since 2008, served as Health Minister in Mohammad Khatami’s government (the fifth President of Iran from August 1997 to August 2005), and supervised sending medical teams during the Iran-Iraq war between 1980 and 1988.

In 1993, Pezeshkian lost his wife and one of his children in a car accident. He never remarried and raised his surviving three children — two sons and a daughter—alone.

“The Reformist”?

In a sense, Pezeshkian is a surprise winner of Iran’s federal election. Standing as a wild card candidate, he defied expectations to win the presidency against a hardline rival – Saeed Jalili.

Pezeshkian is recognized as a reformist, following in the footsteps of Hassan Rouhani (Rouhani served as the seventh President of Iran).

The word “reformist” in Iranian terminology does not carry the same meaning as it does in Western social and political science. In Iranian Shia theology, a reformer (mujtahid) gives a new interpretation of Quranic verses. Therefore, a reformer for Iranian literati means one who brings about reforms within the realm of Islam and not outside its meaning in the social, economic, political, or ideological arena.

Perhaps this was the reason why Pezeshkian was acceptable to the Iranian ecclesiastical set-up. There should be no confusion about Pezeshkian’s reformer ideology, which adheres neither to liberal-mindedness nor democracy-loving reforms in the universal sense.

A BBC commentator put it aptly: “In Iran, the ‘reformists’ are one ideological faction of the Islamic Republic’s ruling elite.” Like their conservative rivals, they are Islamists but believe a more moderate version of the regime’s ideology could better serve both the ruling clergy and Iranian society.

A quick look at Iran’s recent history will provide a better understanding of the “reformists.” The “reformists” who led the administration from 1997 to 2005 became part of a de facto coalition when Hassan Rouhani, a conservative turned centrist, was President between 2013 and 2021. They often called for a freer and more democratic society.

However, hindsight reveals that in the 2024 election, the promises of a freer and more democratic election did find a place in the manifest of reformists. This is one of the reasons why the entire presidential election process was rejected by some Iranian diaspora groups like those in Australia.

Pezeshkian and Mahmoud Sadeghi wearing IRGC uniforms (2019) – Wiki

Commitments vs Manifesto

Candidates contesting elections often make tall claims and a plethora of promises. This is true of any election of substance. We do not have the election manifesto of the party that Pezeshkian ran for in the elections. However, we do have some of the promises that he occasionally mentioned during his poll campaign.

While preparing his campaign strategy for the presidential election, Pezeshkian decided to follow a similar approach to Hassan Rouhani in 2013, focusing on the country’s economic hardships. These were caused by Western sanctions imposed on Iran. At that time, Hassan Rouhani pointed his finger at the conservative rivals, blaming them for their radical anti-Western stance.

Pezeshkian’s election win has provided hope to his followers and lobbyists that a liberal environment may finally emerge after years of conservative and ultra-conservative control.

While campaigning, Pezeshkian called for constructive relations with Western countries to “get Iran out of its isolation.” He pledged to restore the 2015 nuclear agreement with the United States and other countries, which imposed curbs on Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for easing sanctions. The agreement fell apart after the US pulled out in 2018.

Among other commitments, Pezeshkian has promised to ease long-standing internet restrictions. It has to be remembered that in 2022, he had publicly criticized the Raisi government over its handling of the death in custody of 22-year-old Iranian Kurd Mahsa Amini, who had been arrested allegedly for violating the Islamic Republic’s strict dress code for women. Several hundred women are said to have lost their lives in the clashes that erupted after the murder of the young Iranian girl.

In his election campaign, Pezeshkian disapproved of the imposition of mandatory hijab laws, which required women to cover their heads and necks in public shortly after the Islamic revolution of 1979.

Despite multiple protests by Iranian women, the law remains in effect. “We oppose any violent and inhuman behavior towards anyone, notably our sisters and daughters, and we will not allow these actions to happen,” BBC quoted him saying. Pezeshkian also said he would like to involve more women and ethnic minorities like the Kurds and Baluchi in his government.

Reflecting on Iran’s economy, Pezeshkian said that inflation was hovering at about 40%, crushing “the nation’s back.” He pledged to reduce it. In a debate, he said that Iran needed $200 billion in foreign investment, which could be provided only by mending ties across the world.

File Image: Top Chinese diplomat Wang Yi (middle), Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council (right), and Minister of State and national security adviser of Saudi Arabia Musaad bin Mohammed Al Aiban (left) pose for pictures during a meeting in Beijing, China


These are virtuous hopes, and no Iranian will oppose these beneficial changes. Who would not like Iran to be pulled out of isolation, and who would not like Iranian women to gain freedom and rights?

But the million-dollar question is, who enjoys the ultimate and final authority in Iran? Is it the elected President or the unelected supreme religious leader?

The Iranian constitution grants all powers to the religious supremo. The army, security forces, police, foreign policy, parliamentary affairs, religious matters, international treaties and agreements, nuclear power, energy, etc., are presided over by the supreme Ayatollah.

Not a blade of grass in Iran can move without a nod from him. Unless there is some drastic change in this power monopoly, no President in Iran, however tall the promises he may make, can deliver the goods even if he sincerely likes to do so.

Pezeshkian has inherited a legacy from the conservative regime that includes the ongoing war in Gaza, terrorist activities of Houthis, the agenda of the Revolutionary Guard, deep acrimony with Israel, economic sanctions, and sidelining in the international arena.

Can he navigate through these challenges successfully?

  • Prof. KN Pandita (Padma Shri) is the former director of the Center of Central Asian Studies at Kashmir University.
  • This article contains the author’s personal views and does not represent EurAsian Times’ policies/views/opinions in any way. 
  • The author can be reached at knp627 (at) gmail.com