There’s no such thing as a moderate Iranian president

Masoud Pezeshkian
Masoud Pezeshkian

Given the calamitous track record of Iran’s so-called “moderate” leaders, it would be naive in the extreme to believe that the election of former heart surgeon Masoud Pezeshkian as the country’s next president will lead Tehran to adopt a less confrontational approach towards the West.

On the contrary, with the Iranian regime edging ever closer to developing its own nuclear weapons, and Iranian-backed terrorist movements such as Hamas and Hezbollah continuing to destabilise the Middle East, Pezeshkian’s victory should be seen as nothing more than a token gesture to the millions of ordinary Iranians who long for an end to their rulers’ brutal repression.

Pezeshkian certainly made all the right noises after securing victory against his hardline rival Saeed Jalili after winning the second round of the presidential ballot. The 69-year-old Pezeshkian was the only moderate allowed to enter the race after the death of president Ebrahim Raisi in a helicopter crash in May, and he was declared the victor after securing 16.3 million votes, according to Iran’s interior ministry. Jalili, a former nuclear negotiator and a figurehead of a group of hard-line politicians often referred to as “radical Hezbollah” – won 13.5 million votes.

Pezeshkian’s victory has inevitably raised the hopes of those Iranians hoping that their new leader will, at the very least, ease the worst excesses committed by the regime’s hardliners, especially against women. It is no coincidence that Iran has seen a dramatic rise in the number of executions carried out – 833 last year – since nationwide protests erupted over the regime’s rules requiring all women to wear an Islamic headscarf. This hope prompted jubilant Iranians to pour onto the streets across the country, with crowds gathering in public squares, waving flags and chanting slogans of “hope and change.”

During the campaign Pezeshkian, a former health minister and university professor first elected to the Iranian parliament in 2008, promised to relax Iran’s strict Islamic dress code for women, oppose restrictions on Internet use, and limit the powers of the country’s all-pervasive morality police. Another pledge is to reopen negotiations with the West to restore the nuclear deal and end the economic sanctions that have devastated the Iranian economy, with inflation running at nearly 50 per cent.

The prospect of his victory having any profound impact on Iran’s bellicose attitude towards the West and its allies will be virtually non-existent as, while his election helps the regime to portray itself in a more moderate light, it will have next to no impact on the hardliners who actually control the country’s destiny.

Iran’s political system, let us not forget, is under the ultimate control of the country’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Candidates are only allowed to stand once they have passed muster with the Guardian Council, the uncompromising body set up to uphold the principles of the Iranian revolution. Indeed, there have been several occasions in the past when so-called moderate presidents, such as Ali Akbar Rafsanjani and Masoud Pezeshkian, have secured the presidency, only for the regime to persist with its aggressive stance towards the outside world.

It is worth noting, for example, that many of the major advances undertaken in developing Iran’s nuclear programme, such as building the underground enrichment facility at Natanz, took place when the country was run by “moderate” leaders.

The likelihood, therefore, that Pezeshkian will oversee any tangible change in Tehran’s hostile demeanour are negligible, a point Western policymakers must take on board in any future dealings with Iran’s newly-elected president.

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