Explainer-Iran's president-elect has limited ability to bring change

By Parisa Hafezi

DUBAI (Reuters) - The election of relative moderate Masoud Pezeshkian as Iran's president has lifted the hopes of Iranians yearning for social freedoms and better relations with the West, but few expect big policy changes.

Iran's ruling clerics' political fortunes' rely on tackling economic hardship, so Pezeshkian may have a comparatively strong hand to revive the economy, but his scope to permit social freedoms will be limited, insiders and analysts said.

Under Iran's dual system of clerical and republican rule, the president cannot usher in any major policy shift on Iran's nuclear programme or foreign policy, since Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei calls all the shots on top state matters.

However, the president can influence the tone of policy and he will be closely involved in selecting the successor to Khamenei, now 85.

Hardliners, entrenched in institutions Khamenei controls such as the judiciary, armed forces and the media, have in the past blocked either the new opening to the West or domestic liberalisation.

Khamenei has set out guidelines he would like to see in the new government by counselling Pezeshkian to continue the policies of hardline President Ebrahim Raisi, who was killed in a helicopter crash in May.

"Pezeshkian self-identifies as a 'principlist' - someone committed to the ideological principles of the revolution - and has been clear about his devotion to the Revolutionary Guards and Khamenei," said Karim Sadjadpour, an associate at the Carnegie Endowment in Washington.


Pezeshkian, a 69-year-old former heart surgeon, won Iran's run-off presidential vote last week and is yet to be sworn in.

He has pledged to promote a pragmatic foreign policy and ease tensions with the six major powers that have been involved in now-stalled nuclear talks to revive a 2015 nuclear pact.

Undoubtedly, analysts said, Pezeshkian's victory was a setback for hawks such as his rival, hardliner Saeed Jalili, who opposed any opening to the West and revival of the nuclear pact.

Jalili's supporters have criticised a hardline watchdog body for allowing Pezeshkian to run, with insiders suggesting that this decision was made by Khamenei to secure a high turnout amid consistently low participation in elections since 2020.

Pezeshkian hopes that revived talks with the West would lead to a lifting of tough U.S. sanctions, given growing popular discontent over economic hardships.

However, White House spokesperson John Kirby said on Monday the United States was not ready to resume nuclear talks with Iran under the new president.

For Pezeshkian the stakes are high. The president could become politically vulnerable if he fails to revive the pact, which then-U.S. President Donald Trump ditched in 2018 and reimposed harsh sanctions on Iran.

"He has a difficult path ahead ... Pezeshkian's inability to revive the pact will weaken the president and also lead to a backlash against the pro-reform camp who backed him," said a senior reformist former official.

A restoration of ties with the United States, which Iran's rulers have called the "Great Satan" since taking power in a 1979 revolution, remains out of the question.


As the economy remains the Achilles heel for Khamenei, breaking free of the crippling U.S. sanctions, which have cost Iran billions of dollars in income from oil, will remain the top economic goal for Pezeshkian.

Spiralling prices and constricted spending power have left millions of Iranians struggling against a combination of sanctions and mismanagement.

Khamenei knows the economic struggle is a persistent challenge for the ruling clerics, who fear a revival of protests that have erupted since 2017 among lower- and middle-income people angry at enduring hardship.

"Failure to improve the economy will lead to street protests, particularly now that people have high hopes because of Pezeshkian's campaign promises," said an insider who is close to Khamenei.

Iran's economic outlook looks ever more uncertain, analysts say, with the possible return of Trump as U.S. president considered likely to lead to tougher enforcement of oil sanctions.


Pezeshkian enjoys an insider status and close relationship with the theocratic Khamenei, and may be able to build bridges between factions to yield moderation, but this would not enable him to bring about the fundamental changes that many pro-reform Iranians demand.

Pezeshkian, analysts said, is highly likely to end up in a similar position to his predecessors - reformist President Mohammad Khatami and pragmatist Hassan Rouhani - who whetted Iranians' appetite for change but ultimately were blocked by hardliners in the dominant elite of clerics and the powerful Revolutionary Guards.

"Pezeshkian is neither a reformist nor a moderate ... As a foot soldier of Khamanei, Pezeshkian will be subjected to his wishes which clearly has been to rule by violence and repression," said Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of New York-based advocacy group the Centre for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI).

As a lawmaker in 2022, Pezeshkian criticised the establishment over the death in custody of young Iranian woman Mahsa Amini, which triggered months of unrest in Iran.


Unlikely. The top authority in regional policy is not the president, but the Guards, who answer only to Khamenei.

Pezeshkian is taking office at a time of escalating Middle East tensions over the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Signalling no change in Iran's regional policies, Pezeshkian reaffirmed on Monday Iran's anti-Israel stance and its support for resistance movements across the region

"Supporting the resistance of the people in the region against the illegitimate Zionist regime (Israel) is rooted in the fundamental policies of the Islamic Republic," Pezeshkian said in a message to the Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah.

(Writing by Parisa Hafezi, Editing by Timothy Heritage)