Could Iran's new moderate president actually change anything?

At 69, Masoud Pezeshkian is the oldest man ever to be elected president of Iran. During decades as a member of Parliament and a cabinet minister, he’s had plenty of time to hone his political survival skills.

As a moderate in a system dominated by hardliners, he will need them.

Pezeshkian was elected president last Friday, beating his conservative opponent by a comfortable margin, but it was hardly a ringing endorsement. Less than half of Iran’s eligible voters even bothered to come to the polls, and just over a quarter cast a ballot for him.

Overall, expectations are low, and Pezeshkian’s ambitions appear modest.

Supporters cheer as newly-elected Iranian President Masoud Pezeshkian arrives at the shrine of the Islamic Republic’s founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in Tehran, July 6, 2024.


Pezeshkian is an ethical reformist who will try to deliver on his election promises — to the extent that laws and regulations permit,” Hassan Mohammadi, a professor of social sciences at the University of Tehran, told CBS News.

In other words, Pezeshkian has no grand vision to reshape Iran’s authoritarian theocracy, or to challenge the supremacy of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country’s conservative Supreme Leader, even though many Iranians long for just that.

What he is likely to do, is try to soften some of the regime’s harsher measures, such as the rules on mandatory head coverings for women.

“The morality police, fines and other types of punishment must be put aside,” Pezeshkian said on the campaign trail in June. “I don’t think that we are treating [women] justly.” 

If he does roll back the recent crackdown enforcing the mandatory wearing of headscarves, millions of Iranian women are likely to respond immediately by going out without their hair covered — as they did in protest after the 2022 death of Mahsa Amini in police custody.

Hardliners will inevitably push back, and that may well be the first real test of the new president’s power. 

In fact, Pezeshikian has apparently already had a taste of what’s to come. Two days ago, the president-elect had a friendly phone call with Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the president of Iran’s important neighbor Turkey, which successfully embraces both Islamic and secular life. 

A prominent Iranian academic posted on X that, after that phone call, the Turkish Airlines office in Tehran was closed and sealed because female Turkish staff inside were not wearing headscarves in line with Iran’s rules.

During his campaign, Pezeshkian also intimated that he would free up the internet and make more websites accessible. At the moment, it is tightly restricted in Iran. Social media sites such as TikTok, Facebook and X are officially banned, as is access to U.S. and European news sites, including CBS News.

Many young, tech-savvy Iranians have become adept at getting around the restrictions, but it’s cumbersome, and when the regime slows down internet speeds at politically sensitive times, the whole system becomes unusable. 

A national survey recently found Iran’s internet service is among the worst in the world.

Pezeshkian says he wants to make it better.

“Filtering the internet has made the middle men and those who sell anti-filtering software richer,” he said. It is hurting users, and costing them a lot of money.

This, too, will pit Pezeshkian against conservative members of the establishment who — with reasonable cause — fear freer access to uncensored news and information could lead to more civil unrest.

Multiple waves of demonstrations and protests over the past decade have posed serious challenges to the government.

On foreign policy, Pezeshkian has intimated that a better relationship with the West will lead to fewer sanctions, and help Iran’s prosperity. On this point, Pezeshkian will not only have to battle hardliners who want stronger ties with Russia and China instead, he will also be at the mercy of events abroad, especially the U.S. presidential election this fall.

Former President Donald Trump, during his first tenure in the White House, took a hard line on Iran, unilaterally abandoning the international nuclear deal his predecessor fought hard to get Tehran to agree to.

On the programs and policies that have caused the most friction with the West, and which lie at the root of the sanctions — Iran’s missile program, processing of highly enriched uranium, support for the Houthis in Yemen, and support for Hezbollah and Hamas amid the latter group’s war with Israel in Gaza — Pezeshkian has made it clear that he’s firmly on the regime’s side.

In a letter to Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, the new Iranian president wrote, referring to Israel, that “Iran has always supported the resistance [Hezbollah] against the illegitimate Zionist regime’s policies.”

That support, Pezeshkian assured, “is rooted in the guidelines of the Supreme Leader, and will continue.”

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