The election of reformist candidate Masoud Pezeshkian as Iran’s new president dealt a “stunning blow in many ways to the hardliners,” says USIP’s Robin Wright. However, “the hardliners still have control of the legislature and the judiciary, and they can create havoc for the new president” and his agenda.

U.S. Institute of Peace experts discuss the latest foreign policy issues from around the world in On Peace, a brief weekly collaboration with SiriusXM's POTUS Channel 124.


Laura Coates: Let's talk to Robin Wright, a foreign policy analyst, author, journalist and a joint fellow at the United States Institute of Peace and the Woodrow Wilson International Center about what's going on in Iran. Robin, welcome and good morning. How are you?

Robin Wright: Good morning. Great to be with you.

Laura Coates: Let's talk about what's happening in Iran. First of all, the presidential election happening, what is the latest? What are the different sides involved and what are the politics telling you?

Robin Wright: Well, Iran has made a little bit of history actually over the past week. First of all, its election season is enviably short, they had seven presidential elections that lasted each one, almost three hours, over a period of two weeks and Iranians went to the polls twice. What's really interesting is that the first round in late June only produced 40% turnout, the record low. The second election, which took place on Friday, July 5, pulled out half the population, and they voted for a reformer. This is a stunning blow, in many ways to the hardliners who thought they were going to continue their grip on the presidency after the death of President Raisi in a helicopter accident in May. But instead, a reformer, it turned out and there were celebrations in streets and cities in several parts of Iran. So, it's interesting.

Laura Coates: In terms of, you know, is there a surprise? There's a history of it, but was there a surprise and the outcome of this?

Robin Wright: Absolutely a surprise. There was a widespread belief that the regime would not allow a reformer to run that it would manipulate the final round, but it didn't. Now, there are two messages that come out of this election. First of all, half the population still did not vote. And that's a direct slap in the face to the Islamic Republic, a signal that half the population doesn't believe in the system. But among those who were willing to participate, the overwhelming message was that we don't want a hardliner in power right now. And so, the hardliners still have control of the legislature and the judiciary, and they can create havoc for the new president, a cardiac surgeon who is a former health minister, named Masoud Pezeshkian, because he has to get his nominees, his cabinet confirmed in Parliament. And the system in the past has used the judicial system to punish, to arrest, to detain, and to harass those who are outspoken against the system. So, this is not smooth sailing at all, he'll have a very difficult time. But the fact is, he will be the face of policymaking when it comes especially to foreign policy. And he has in the debates called for negotiations with the outside world, a resumption of nuclear diplomacy. So, these are important signals to the outside world, at least in this early stage.

Laura Coates: As you noted, the turnout that was there, there was no internationally recognized monitors who were present at this election. Does that have an impact on how the rest of the world sees the integrity of this election?

Robin Wright: Well, that's always been a problem in Iran. It has never allowed international monitors. And there are always questions about whether it has rigged the system in some ways. That was particularly true in 2009, when President Ahmadinejad was elected and claims of fraud led to millions of people turning out to protest for six months. But the regime knows the consequences when it tries to do that. So, you know, the United States believes, and I said publicly several times, Iran's elections are not free and fair. And that's a very important point. But what's interesting is that there was enough movement. Even within a very restricted system where all candidates are vetted for their Islamic credentials, that a reformist who was quite feisty in the presidential debates and saying that the system, its morality, police, its judiciary couldn't be used to repress the people. That it shouldn't use force against women who don't wear a hijab or head covering, that it should be more open with Iran's many minorities. So, you know, these, these were important words, at least, that resonated enough to bring out, you know, 10 million more voters.

Laura Coates: One of the things he said is, "in this election, I did not give you false promises. It's been many years after revolution, that we come to the podium, we make promises, and we fail to fulfill them. This is the biggest problem we have." But I would note that it doesn't appear that he has promised any radical changes to the theocracy in his campaign, will there be? Has he given any indication that there'll be any difference or changes made?

Robin Wright: I think the changes will not be to the system, in other words, to the Constitution or to the system of rule. But what he's talking about are the everyday issues he wants to deal with. Whether it's Iran's foreign policy, the issue of personal freedoms, at least to a small degree, that will ease the kind of backlash, the arrests, you know, the long prison sentences for those who do protest. But again, it's going to be a tough run. I mean, he's, you know, he faces so many challenges, and reformers in the past have made promises, and then had to face the system. So, you know, in time probably.

Laura Coates: When you look at this as but one of many elections, we've been seeing, obviously, the UK, France, the United States, has their elections later on this fall. When you're looking over the global landscape of what you're seeing, are they paying attention as much as you know, we're focusing on what's happening in Iran? As there are the United elections, as happening in France and UK? Are you seeing any themes emerge here?

Robin Wright: You mean, looking globally? Or how Iran looks at it? 

Laura Coates: Yes, how Iran looks at it, and then globally.

Robin Wright: Well, one of the interesting things in the debates was how often they referred to President Trump and what he did in pulling out of the deal and the possibility that he would return as President of the United States. So, I think there's an awareness everywhere in the world that the United States is facing a big choice, that this is a period of a lot of questions in the United States. And in terms of moving forward. So, Iran is no different than whether it's France or Britain, or, you know, the kind of other parts of Europe, that there's an awareness that American policy could change dramatically over the next year.

Laura Coates: So important to hear your perspective on all of these matters. And I do wonder going forward, what will you be, I mean, obviously, been covering this area for a long time and are so well versed. What is it you're looking for in the months to come to evaluate the tenure of this election and the results?

Robin Wright: So, the interesting thing is that the president of Iran usually comes to the United Nations, for the opening of the General Assembly in September. And that's a moment when the new Iranian president is likely to meet many of his counterparts. That was a moment when President Obama first reached out in a cell phone call to the president of Iran when they were both in the United States for the General Assembly. So, again, you know, it'll be interesting to see what kind of overtures Iran makes toward the United States at a moment that it could, it has developed its nuclear program, so far that it could if it wanted to become the 10th nuclear power. And it's interesting that the President who died in Iran's helicopter accident didn't want to deal with United States, whereas the new president has signaled that he does.

Laura Coates: So important to hear your perspective today. Thank you for joining me, Robin Wright, joint Fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Woodrow Wilson International Center. You can always follow her @wrightr. Thanks for joining.

Robin Wright: Thank you.

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