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Who is Masoud Pezeshkian, the President-elect of Iran who has promised to relax compulsory Hijab law in the Islamic country

He stuck to his guns during his recent campaign, attacking the implementation of rules requiring women to cover their heads and necks in public since the Islamic revolution of 1979.

On Saturday, 6th of July, Iran elected Masoud Pezeshkian, a former health minister as the president of the Islamic Republic in a stunning turn of events. Masoud Pezeshkian, the progressive leader, defeated hardliner Saeed Jalili in the Iranian presidential election which took place on the 5th of July.

The election was marked by the lowest turnout in Iran’s history where only 40% of eligible voters participated in last week’s election.

During the campaign, Pezeshkian pledged to ease the implementation of Iran’s mandatory headscarf law and also talked about engaging with Western countries. According to observers, international powers are expected to welcome him with the hope that he would seek diplomatic solutions to the tense stalemate between Iran and western countries over Iran’s rapidly developing nuclear program.

Masoud Pezeshkian being greeted by supporters as he arrives Friday to vote at a polling station near Tehran. (Source: Vahid Salemi/AP)

Masoud Pezeshkian was able to win over a population that had been severely demoralised by years of security crackdowns that suppressed any public opposition to Islamist orthodoxy. In addition to easing tensions over currently-stalled negotiations with major powers to resuscitate a 2015 nuclear accord, the 69-year-old heart surgeon has promised to advance a pragmatic foreign policy and enhance chances for social liberalisation and political pluralism.

Notably, the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei oversees all the decisions on important state matters in Iran, which has a dual system of clerical and republican administration. As a result, the president is unable to implement any significant policy changes regarding Iran’s nuclear program or backing for militia groups around the Middle East. However, the president has the power to shape the nation’s policies and is going to have a key role in choosing 65-year-old Khamenei’s successor.

Masoud Pezeshkian is an ardent follower of Iran’s theocratic government and has no desire to take on the country’s formidable security hawks and clerical overlords. He has pledged not to criticise Ayatollah Khamenei’s policies in TV debates and interviews and declared, “If I I try but fail to fulfill my campaign promises, I would say goodbye to political work and not continue. There is no point in wasting our life and not being able to serve our dear people,” in a video message to voters.

Following the death of hardliner President Ebrahim Raisi in a helicopter crash in May, the reformist camp led by former President Mohammad Khatami emerged from years of political seclusion and supported Masoud Pezeshkian in the election. His opinions stand in contrast to those of Raisi, a protégé of Khamenei who enforced a rule restricting women’s clothing more stringently and adopted a firm posture in the now-stalled discussions with major powers to revive the nuclear agreement. Notably, former United States President Donald Trump abandoned Iran Nuclear Deal and reinstated sanctions against Iran in 2018.

Masoud Pezeshkian’s background

Masoud Pezeshkian was born on 29th September 1954, in Mahabad to Iranian-Azerbaijani parents. His father was ethnically Azeri and his mother was Kurdish. His love of the country’s cultural tapestry was formed by his mixed ethnic background. He went on to become an esteemed cardiac surgeon after serving in the armed forces during the Iran-Iraq War and was tasked with the deployment of medical teams to the front lines. He eventually took on a leadership role at Tabriz University of Medical Sciences. In 1994, his life dramatically changed when he lost his wife Fatemeh Majidi and one of his daughters in an automobile accident.

Pezeshkian never remarried and raised his two sons and remaining daughter alone. His political career also began with the tragic incident, during which he worked for President Mohammad Khatami as Deputy Health Minister and then as Health Minister. He represented Tabriz, Osku, and Azarshahr electoral districts in the Parliament of Iran and also served as its First Deputy Speaker from 2016 to 2020. He supported moderate and reformist objectives and analysts frequently referred to him as an “independent” rather than as being aligned to any voting bloc. He has also adopted that independent identity during the current campaign.

Supporters hold posters of Masoud Pezeshkian during a campaign event in Tehran. (Sources: Reuters)

Pezeshkian was Minister of Health and Medical Education between 2001 and 2005 in the Government of Mohammad Khatami. He became embroiled in the conflict between reformists and hardliners almost immediately after witnessing the autopsy of freelance photojournalist Zahra Kazemi, who was a dual-citizen of Iran and Canada.

Pezeshkian was elected governor of both Piranshahr and Naghadeh counties in West Azerbaijan province during the 1980s. He registered to run for president in 2011 but then withdrew his name. Authorities prevented him and other well-known contenders from running in 2021, ensuring an easy victory for Ebrahim Raisi. He has worked to strike a compromise between the constraints of Iran’s theocratic system and his reformist beliefs throughout his political career.

Masoud Pezeshkian’s supporters have attempted to pit him against Saeed Jalili’s “Taliban” policies in the campaign. His campaign’s catchphrase, “For Iran,” could potentially be an imitation of the well-known song “Baraye,” or “For” in English by Grammy Award-winning Iranian singer-songwriter Shervin Hajipour. Notably, Hajipour received a sentence of more than three years in prison over his anthem for the protests triggered by Mahsa Amini’s death.

Views on Iran’s controversial Hijab law

Masoud Pezeshkian, in 2022 openly criticised how the 22-year-old Iranian Kurd Mahsa Amini‘s death was handled by Ebrahim Raisi’s administration and expressed, “It is unacceptable in the Islamic Republic to arrest a girl for her hijab and then hand over her dead body to her family.” She had been apprehended because she had reportedly broken the country’s severe dress code for women. He demanded clarification from authorities and asked them to “set up an investigation team” to look into the circumstances surrounding her death, in a post on X.

He stuck to his guns during his recent campaign, attacking the implementation of rules requiring women to cover their heads and necks in public since the Islamic revolution of 1979. “We are losing our backing in society because of our behaviour, high prices, our treatment of girls and because we censor the internet. People are discontent with us because of our behaviour,” he announced in a television debate, addressing the government’s shortcomings. He voiced, “We will respect the hijab law, but there should never be any intrusive or inhumane behaviour toward women,” after casting his vote in the first round.

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