Ghassan Charbel
Editor-in-Chief of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper

Pezeshkian and the Iranian Guide’s Calculations

The past few days have been burdened with messages from Washington to Tehran, via London and Paris. In a world with wide-open doors, elections are no longer a local matter. The importance increases when the results affect the future of economies, policies, and arsenals.

When the news emerged about Masoud Pezeshkian winning the Iranian presidency, I was struck by the man’s features and biography. He did not come from the religious institution, like a number of his predecessors, including Khamenei, Rafsanjani, Khatami, Rouhani, and Raisi. He has no fingerprints in the military and security establishment, as he put on the IRGC uniform only once when his fellow MPs wore it in protest at the Guard’s designation as a terrorist organization.

Pezeshkian was born in the city of Mahabad, which one day saw the birth of a Kurdish state that barely survived a year. His father is Azeri and his mother is Kurdish, which gives him the ability to understand the conditions and demands of minorities. He took the path of medicine and graduated as a cardiac surgeon. He entered the government as Minister of Health during the term of Mohammad Khatami and represented Tabriz in five parliamentary terms.

The prevailing impression was that the Iranian spiritual guide would nominate the extreme conservative figure, Saeed Jalili, for the presidency, and that Iran will push extremism to the forefront at a time when the American presidency seems within the reach of Donald Trump, who had ordered the killing of Qassem Soleimani. This didn’t happen. Reading Iranian politics is not easy and sometimes requires patience similar to that of Iranian carpet makers.

Why did the spiritual leader allow Pezeshkian to run in the presidential elections and win? In 2021, the Guardian Council - which considers the eligibility of candidates - prevented the man from participating in the race. In February, the Council also rejected Pezeshkian’s eligibility due to his “lack of commitment to the principles of the revolution,” in reference to his position on the protests. But the man was able to run in the elections with Khamanei’s intervention. In fact, Pezeshkian criticized the harshness in dealing with the protests, especially regarding the killing of Mahsa Amini after her arrest, but considered the demonstrations harmful to the country.

In recent years, Pezeshkian has presented himself as a “conservative with reformist tendencies.” He does not have the talent for rhetoric and manipulating the emotions of the masses and the marginalized, whom his predecessor, Ahmadinejad, used to address. A moderate man. A doctor who believes in science and controlling the limits of vocabulary. He is a pragmatist and a son of the regime. He knows the balance of power and the actual center of decision-making, and he promotes under this ceiling the benefits of opening the window.

Pezeshkian did not hide the need to engage in negotiations with the West to lift sanctions, which he acknowledges are painful and have made the lives of many Iranians “miserable.” Khamenei certainly knew that Pezeshkian’s appearance in the presidential race would push Khatami, Mehdi Karroubi, Hassan Khomeini (grandson of the founding guide), and Ali Akbar Nouri to support him.

There are multiple readings about Pezeshkian’s victory, despite the fact that the major and final decision on foreign and domestic affairs resides in Khamenei’s office. There are those who believe that the supreme leader may have thought that the arrival of a hardliner like Jalili would exacerbate the already tense foreign relations - especially with the West’s conviction that Iran was very close to producing a nuclear weapon – and that Tehran needs a degree of calm both externally and internally to read the stormy international scene, especially if Trump wins the title of Mr. President. They also believe that Iran needs some time to consolidate and digest the successes achieved by Soleimani’s influence on some maps of the region.

The supreme leader may agree with some people’s suggestion that the Iranian regime has succeeded abroad more than it did at home, if the rates of poverty, unemployment, and development are taken into consideration. In addition, Iran is involved in the Gaza war and supporting conflicts, and managing this complex scene requires cooling feelings at home. On the other hand, there are those who think that Khamenei preferred the arrival of a president who cannot have an influence on the future selection of a new spiritual guide, even if he revives the role or image of the reformists.

What are the limits of Iranian ambitions? What are Iran’s borders in the region? Is it satisfied with what it has achieved so far in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and in the “Palestinian paper,” or is it seeking more? Does it want to stop the gunfire in the region and secure this and that sea? Is it looking for an American acceptance of its new size and new role? Is it aspiring to reserve its position in a Russian-Chinese axis, or desiring a distinctive status that does not condition its policy on the decisions of Moscow or Beijing?

Last week was full of messages, but some of them were easier to read than the Iranian news. Britain overturned 14 years of Conservative rule. Rishi Sunak is out, replaced by the Labor Party’s Keir Starmer. British institutions have proven that they operate without cracks or collapse.

On the other hand, the French elections revealed the depth of divisions in the country, heralding years of turmoil. A young man named Emmanuel Macron gambled with a large fund placed by Charles de Gaulle in the Fifth Republic. He gambled and lost, and France lost with him.

In parallel, the American scenes were exciting and painful. President Joe Biden is trying to lift the weight of his eighties. He is placing more demands on his memory that it can manage and resisting advice to leave the race after his “injury.” Facing the wounded president is a rude boxer who is skilled at hitting below the belt, and who mocks the burden of the eighties despite standing at its threshold.