Reformist Masoud Pezeshkian – NBC Los Angeles

Reformist Masoud Pezeshkian – NBC Los Angeles

Reformist Masoud Pezeshkian – NBC Los Angeles

Reformist candidate Masoud Pezeshkian won Iran’s presidential runoff election on Saturday, beating hardline leader Saeed Jalili by promising to move closer to the West and ease enforcement of a mandatory headscarf law after years of sanctions and protests put pressure on the Islamic Republic.

Pezeshkian did not promise radical changes to Iran’s Shiite theocracy in his campaign and has long regarded Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as the final arbiter of all state affairs in the country. But even Pezeshkian’s modest goals will be challenged by an Iranian government still in the hands of hardliners, the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip and Western fears that Tehran is enriching uranium to near-weapons levels.

A recount by authorities put Pezeshkian as the winner with 16.3 million votes to Jalili’s 13.5 million in Friday’s election.

Supporters of Pezeshkian, a heart surgeon and longtime lawmaker, took to the streets of Tehran and other cities before dawn to celebrate as his lead widened over Jalili, a hardline former nuclear negotiator.

But Pezeshkian’s victory still puts Iran in a delicate moment, with tensions high in the Middle East due to the war between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip, the advance of Iran’s nuclear program and an upcoming US election that could jeopardize any chance of a détente between Tehran and Washington.

The first round of voting on June 28 saw the lowest turnout in the Islamic Republic’s history since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Iranian officials have long pointed to the turnout as a sign of support for the country’s Shiite theocracy, which has come under strain following years of sanctions crushing Iran’s economy, mass protests and an intense crackdown on dissent.

Government officials including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei predicted a higher turnout rate as the election got underway, and state television broadcast images of modest lines at some polling stations across the country.

However, online videos reportedly showed some ballot boxes were empty, while a poll at several dozen sites in the capital Tehran had little traffic amid a heavy security presence on the streets.

The election came amid heightened regional tensions. In April, Iran launched its first direct attack on Israel over the war in Gaza, while militant groups that Tehran supplies with arms in the region, such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Yemen’s Houthi rebels, are taking part in the fighting and have stepped up their attacks.

Iran is also enriching uranium to near-weapons-grade levels and maintains an arsenal large enough to build several nuclear weapons, if it so chose. And while Khamenei remains the final decision-maker on matters of state, whoever ends up winning the presidency could tilt the country’s foreign policy toward confrontation or collaboration with the West.

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The campaign also repeatedly mentioned what would happen if former President Donald Trump, who unilaterally withdrew the United States from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018, won the November election. Iran has held indirect talks with President Joe Biden’s administration, though there has been no clear move toward restricting Tehran’s nuclear program in exchange for lifting economic sanctions.

More than 61 million Iranians aged 18 and over were eligible to vote, of whom about 18 million were between the ages of 18 and 30. Voting was due to end at 6 p.m. but was extended until midnight to boost turnout.

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

Still, he was known to many for his role in Iran’s mass executions in 1988 and in the bloody crackdown 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.


Vahdat reported from Tehran, Iran. Nasser Karimi contributed to this report from Tehran.