Iran’s Election Surprise: A Reformist Victory Amid Turmoil

In a dramatic turn of events, Masoud Pezeshkian’s election as Iran’s new president has set the stage for potential change in a nation grappling with deep-seated discontent and geopolitical turmoil. His victory in a snap presidential election, just 50 days after a helicopter crash that claimed the lives of conservative president Ebrahim Raisi, the foreign minister, a governor, and five others, carries significant implications for Iran, the region, and US-Iran relations. This election comes at a critical juncture, with ongoing conflicts such as the Gaza war, the looming threat of its expansion to Lebanon, continued US sanctions on Iran, a rapidly growing Iranian nuclear program, and shifting geopolitical winds challenging the US-dominated global order.

Pezeshkian’s victory is particularly noteworthy given Iran’s political system, which does not hold free or fair elections and is heavily influenced by unelected institutions and theocratic bodies. The Islamic Republic, born from the 1979 revolution that overthrew the US-backed Shah, has been characterized by a persistent power struggle between its republican factions, which advocate for greater political inclusion and reform, and its religiously fundamentalist and ideological factions, which prioritize theocratic governance and strict adherence to revolutionary principles. This internal tension has shaped Iran’s domestic and foreign policies, creating an often contentious political environment.

This election highlighted the enduring clash within the Islamic Republic’s political landscape, and was set against a backdrop of widespread discontent among Iranians. Many citizens are profoundly disillusioned or actively opposed to a political system that has imposed severe economic hardships, social and political restrictions, including pervasive internet censorship, and the enforcement of traditional religious norms like mandatory hijab, in an increasingly secular society. The political environment has also become more insular in recent years, with reformist and moderate figures who once played significant roles becoming largely marginalized.

Pezeshkian’s victory is significant on multiple levels. His approval to run by the Guardian Council—a 12-member body of clerics and jurists that vets candidates—marked the first time in years that a prominent reformist was allowed to seek the presidency. Pezeshkian, a five-term parliamentarian and former health minister in the reformist government of Mohammad Khatami, has represented Tabriz in northwestern Iran, near the Turkish border, where his core constituency includes Iranian Azeris and Kurds, reflecting his own ethnic heritage.

Speculation abounds regarding the motivations behind the Guardian Council, and by extension the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in allowing Pezeshkian to run. It was likely an attempt to increase voter turnout, which had dropped to historic lows in uncompetitive elections since 2021. The Guardian Council approved six candidates, with Pezeshkian being the only reformist, and his main competitors being hardline conservatives.
 

His approval to run by the Guardian Council—a 12-member body of clerics and jurists that vets candidates—marked the first time in years that a prominent reformist was allowed to seek the presidency.

The election’s outcome, however, likely deviated from the Guardian Council’s expectations. The first round saw a new historic low turnout of 39.93%, a reflection of the electorate’s deep-seated apathy and disillusionment. However, amid intense rivalry among conservatives, Pezeshkian emerged as the frontrunner, with Saeed Jalili, a staunch hardliner, advancing to the second round. This result shocked the Iranian political landscape, as historically, lower turnout has typically benefited conservative candidates.

In the second round, Pezeshkian, representing the republican wing of the Islamic Republic, faced off against Jalili, who advocated for autarky and a return to the 1979 revolutionary ideology. The results delivered another surprise: turnout increased to 49.68%.

A critical aspect of this election was the electorate’s strategic behavior. Two key groups emerged: those who actively voted for Pezeshkian in both rounds and those who abstained strategically in the first round but participated in the second. The former rejected Jalili’s ideology, while the latter, through calculated abstention, significantly influenced the outcome and sent an undeniable message to the authorities. By abstaining initially, they sent a message of discontent, and the subsequent participation of part of this constituency ensured Pezeshkian’s victory while maintaining their protest voice and signaling ongoing dissatisfaction.
 

By abstaining initially, [second-round voters] sent a message of discontent, and the subsequent participation of part of this constituency ensured Pezeshkian’s victory while maintaining their protest voice and signaling ongoing dissatisfaction.

Looking ahead, Pezeshkian faces numerous challenges. He ran on a platform calling for an end to mandatory hijab enforcement, easing social restrictions, opening up the political arena, and pursuing constructive international relations, including with the West. During debates, he emphasized the debilitating impact of sanctions and the need for negotiations to lift them. He defended the 2015 nuclear deal, abandoned by the Trump administration, which reimposed US sanctions and decimated the political capital of centrist former president Hassan Rouhani. He also criticized hardliners for actions that he said immensely harmed the country, such as attacks on the Saudi and British embassies.

Hardliners and unelected institutions in Iran will undoubtedly try to obstruct Pezeshkian’s reformist efforts. Their influence, coupled with continued policies of sanctions and regime change from hawkish forces in the US, Israel, and Europe, presents significant challenges. Yet, the Iranian electorate has made its stance unmistakably clear: it rejects extremism and desires a better quality of life, both domestically and through constructive international engagement. Pezeshkian’s platform, centered on economic revitalization and improving diplomatic relations, resonates deeply with the aspirations of many Iranians. This election signals a major moment in Iran, reflecting a collective yearning for progressive change and a break from the past.

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Post-CNN Debate: Visions for the World in 2025

On June 27, CNN held a debate between former president Donald Trump and incumbent president Joe Biden. Both men are in the unique position of running against a previous office holder, and the election itself is a rematch of the socially distanced contest held between the same two candidates in 2020.

There is arguably no area of governance where a president has greater freedom and impact than foreign policy. To better understand how the candidates used foreign policy positions on the debate stage, and the limits of their understanding or desired policies, the fellows of the Center for International Policy have assembled to offer some deeper insight. A transcript of the debate can be read here.
 

Sina Toossi, on the Middle East in the Debate

The presidential debate offered little hope for a more peaceful and just U.S. foreign policy towards the Middle East. The most egregious moment was Trump’s use of “Palestinian” as an insult in an exchange with Biden over their “pro-Israel” stances, a shocking display of racism that has largely escaped mainstream scrutiny.

Trump’s false claims about his Iran policy—asserting Iran was impotent and “broke” by the end of his term—belie the reality of his maximum pressure campaign, which provoked increased aggression from Iran, including unprecedented attacks on U.S. assets and allies, and accelerated nuclear activities.

Biden also faltered, with factual inaccuracies about Iran having intercontinental ballistic missile capabilities and misleading claims about U.S. military members not being killed under his watch in the region. Both candidates failed to present a coherent vision of the realities of U.S. policies towards the region.

 

Joanna Rozpedowski, on NATO in the Debate

Voters concerned about America’s security and geopolitical strategy face a pivotal choice between two starkly different approaches to international conflicts the new president will inevitably confront.

In the CNN debate, President Biden emphasized the importance of robust alliances and collective security measures, arguing that NATO and allied support are essential for deterring Russian aggression and maintaining global stability.

Former President Trump’s transactional approach prioritized national sovereignty, extreme frugality, and direct negotiation over costly multilateral commitments. His rhetoric indicated skepticism about the economic and tactical burdens the US bears in supporting NATO’s Ukraine approach, which thus far failed to result in the war’s peaceful settlement and risks further escalation onto neighboring European countries.

In November, this strategic divide presents Americans with a critical decision: maintain strong international alliances, an aggressive deterrence posture, and multilateral NATO engagement or attempt to resolve the conflict through diplomatic channels and direct negotiation. The decision rests squarely with the electorate.

 

Michael Chamberlin, on Mexico in the Debate

Regarding the issue of fentanyl crossing the border, neither candidate focuses on addressing the root causes. They fail to discuss how to collaborate with Mexico to strengthen its justice and anti-corruption institutions or how to stop Mexican criminal groups from obtaining guns in U.S. stores. Nothing was said about gun control in the United States or the movement of guns south through the same border, which arms the cartels that later send fentanyl north. Additionally, they overlook the importance of preventive measures from a health service perspective. Approaching the problem from a prohibition standpoint alone will never stop drug abuse.

 

Negar Mortazavi, on Iran in the Debate

Neither Trump nor Biden offered a coherent policy on Iran and the broader Middle East. Trump claimed that Iran had no money under his administration which is false. It’s true that he imposed broad sanctions against Iran that hurt the economy. But the impact of sanctions is mainly felt by average Iranian citizens and it does not really influence or change Iran’s foreign policy and regional spending. In fact, during Trump’s term tensions were high between Iran and its network of allies, the Axis of Resistance, and the U.S. and its regional allies.

Trump’s assassination of the top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani brought the two countries to the brink of a dangerous war, with Iran retaliating against the U.S. by shooting missiles from its soil targeting U.S. forces in Iraq. Trump’s “maximum pressure” policy towards Iran was not only dangerous but failed to achieve its stated goal of bringing Iran to the negotiating table for a better deal.

Biden’s policy towards Iran in general has not been very different or successful either. Candidate Biden had promised to prioritize diplomacy with Iran and revive the nuclear deal, but he couldn’t deliver on that promise.

 

Van Jackson, on China in the Debate

Biden has accepted Trump’s premise about China and economic statecraft. He now thinks reducing the trade deficit with China is a mark of progress. He imagines political economy as a zero-sum terrain where their gain is not just our loss; it’s a threat to us. This is the kind of economic nationalism that ultimately serves defense-industrial interests and reactionary political projects.Trump, for his part, openly accused the sitting American president of treason and corruption–he called him a “Manchurian candidate.” This is actual red-baiting; literally John Birch Society stuff. The notable thing, which is of pattern, is that Trump is using China as the wedge to attack his political opponent. The fascistic, corrupt politician is using the China bogeyman to advance his politics against his democratic opponent. The GOP did much the same in 2020 and 2022.

It’s true that politicians from both parties try to play the “China card” to their advantage…but it’s false that the “China card” is some value-neutral object that anyone can use for their purposes with equal effectiveness. China-threat rhetoric systematically biases toward reactionary, demagogic political outcomes; it’s unfavorable terrain for democratic politics. That’s why Democrats who tried to out-hawk their opponents on China in 2022 fared poorly in the general election.

Trump is not wrong that Biden’s foreign policy is pushing us toward World War III—we’re still insisting on a strategy of primacy in a world where power realities simply make it impossible. And by pursuing primacy anyway, the national security state naturalizes the necessity of the most dangerous kinds of policies: containment, arms-racing, and economic nationalism. This will not end well for anyone. The falsity in Trump’s rant though is that he is any better. Indeed, Biden’s China policy is Trump’s China policy. Worse, Trump’s implied theory of war prevention appears to be a form of extortion. Cultivating personal relationships with dictators, he insists, is the way to prevent World War III. That means that Trump puts himself in the position of telling the public, “Look, you want me to be friends with Xi and Putin and Kim. That’s how I’m preventing Armageddon.”

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Israel’s Damascus airstrike was a deliberate provocation

Sina Toossi is a senior non-resident fellow at the Center for International Policy

On April 1st, an Israeli airstrike in Damascus dramatically escalated already simmering tensions between Israel and Iran. The operation led to the deaths of seven Iranians, including a senior commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The target, according to Iran, was an official consulate building. However, Israel disputes this claim, which would be a violation of international law. Despite this, many countries and the United Nations have condemned the attacks on grounds that diplomatic facilities were targeted. Notably, even U.S. allies in the region, such as the UAE, Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, expressed their disapproval.

In response, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has vowed retribution, declaring that those responsible “will be punished by our brave men,” and that they will “regret this crime.” Iran’s Foreign Minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, also indicated that Iran had sent an “important message” to the U.S. government, holding it accountable for supporting Israel’s actions. These developments suggest that Iran may be considering a substantial retaliation, which could include renewed actions against American forces in the region.

The Israeli airstrike occurs at a time when Israel, under the leadership of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is grappling with a multitude of internal and external pressures. The war in Gaza has taken a severe toll on Israel’s societal fabric and economy. The military draft has drained the workforce, while the war’s ripple effects have contracted Israel’s GDP by an estimated 20 percent. Additionally, the government, already facing internal strife due to Netanyahu’s legal issues and public discontent, has been further strained by the fallout from failed hostage rescue operations and the loss of numerous hostages due to Israeli bombardments.

Adding to these internal challenges is Israel’s growing diplomatic isolation, exemplified by the UN Security Council’s demand for an immediate halt to military operations in Gaza. This call signifies a notable shift in the Biden administration’s approach, which is increasingly critical of Israel’s conduct.

Against this backdrop, Netanyahu’s decision to green-light the airstrike on Damascus seems to be a calculated act to amplify the hostilities. Such a move sharply contrasts with international appeals for restraint and indicates a deliberate escalation strategy.

Netanyahu seems to be aiming to provoke Iran and intensify the conflict to galvanize domestic and international political support and justify wider military actions, potentially in Rafah and against Hezbollah and Iran. This strategy risks drawing the United States deeper into the conflict, with potentially dire ramifications for regional stability.

The crucial issue now is Iran’s potential reaction.  A review of commentary from prominent Iranian analysts from across the Islamic Republic’s political spectrum reveals two prevailing narratives: one perceives Israel’s actions as a deliberate provocation of war that Iran should respond to with restraint, while the other suggests that Israel is capitalizing on Iran’s typically restrained responses and that failing to react proportionately will only invite further escalations. The latter perspective is gaining momentum, with increasing calls for a decisive response to deter future Israeli aggression.

Iran’s potential responses to the Israeli airstrike include a wide range of actions, such as targeting Israeli interests in third countries, reciprocal attacks within Israel’s own borders or the Golan Heights, or escalating cyber warfare attacks. The consequences of Iran’s decision could profoundly affect the Middle East and beyond.

The U.S. response to Netanyahu’s actions is also crucial. President Biden is at a critical juncture where he can exert significant coercive pressure on Netanyahu to prevent an escalation in regional tensions. Despite his hesitations so far, it is more vital than ever that he takes decisive action now. Failure to act could exacerbate the situation, potentially leading to a regional conflict with severe repercussions for U.S. interests and which would inadvertently benefit U.S. great power rivals like Russia and China.

Given the current developments, it is crucial for the U.S. and other global powers to intensify their efforts towards de-escalation. The initial step in this process should involve applying pressure on Netanyahu to cease further military actions. This could be achieved through various means, including halting arms shipments, imposing economic sanctions, or advocating for international legal action against Israel.

The foremost priority in this situation remains securing a ceasefire agreement. Achieving this would require Netanyahu to compromise on what he previously termed as “delusional” demands by Hamas for a hostage exchange and an end to the war. Another vital aspect is preventing escalation along the Lebanon border, especially considering statements from Israeli officials like Defense Minister Yoav Gallant about their intent to increase “firepower” against Hezbollah.

Up until now, Iran has been striving to manage the level of regional violence to avert a full-scale war. Iran and its regional allies have been calibrating their actions to pressure the U.S. and Israel to end the Gaza war. Iran has dissuaded its allied militias in Iraq from firing missiles at American forces in the region, understanding that these are tripwire forces and attacking them would allow for hawks in Washington to push for war.

Nevertheless, Iran holds escalatory dominance, capable of commanding its allies to renew attacks on U.S. forces. The question now is whether the U.S. and Iran can prevent this from escalating into a wider war, which neither side wants but Netanyahu seems bent on for his own political survival. The aftermath of the Damascus strikes will serve as a significant test.

Exiled Iranian monarchists align with Israel’s hardliners

When Iranians drove out the Shah in 1979, a revolution that ultimately ended with the Islamic Republic, supporters of monarchy were driven into exile or underground. In the decades since, these monarchists waiting for a restoration of the Pahlavi throne have found themselves part of the opposition to the present government of Iran, but sitting uncomfortably alongside other opposition movements, especially ones that dream and fight for a democratic Iran. This tension is reflected not just in how the separate opposition movements protest in the country, but in how they position the role of Iran in the world. Notably, Reza Pahlavi, claimant to the overthrown throne, has aligned Iranian monarchists with Israel, leading monarchists to wave the pre-revolution flag at rallies in support of Israel’s war on Gaza.

As Sina Toosi, senior non-resident fellow at CIP, writes for Al-Jazeera:

“…since the outbreak of the Gaza war, the Iranian monarchist movement has shown strong support for Israel online and at pro-Israel rallies in Europe and the United States. Their often-aggressive tactics have concerned many pro-Palestinian activists, with pro-Pahlavi lobbying groups in Washington, DC, such as the National Union for Democracy in Iran (NUFDI), seeking to intimidate pro-Palestinians activists who have been critical of Iranian-American supporters of Israel, labelling them “supporters of Palestinian terrorist groups”.”

This hard-line is a break from the last Shah’s actual foreign policy, which balanced US alignment, security cooperation with Israel, and vocal support for Palestine. Out of power and in exile, Iranian monarchists have not had to make concessions required even of autocrats. Instead, they’ve aligned with the hard right in the US and in Israel, supporting intervention, sanctions, and confrontation with the Islamic Republic.

This, Toosi writes, is in sharp contrast to the human rights-aligned pro-democracy movement within Iran:

“Other government critics and activists believe the Iranian monarchists’ support from Israel and its right-wing allies in the US – evident in their close ties with pro-Israel lobbies in Washington and their reliance on media support from Israeli-government-aligned outlets and influencers – is not a benefit, but baggage. It has exposed their lack of legitimacy and credibility, and their disregard for the Iranian people’s democratic aspirations.”

While hardliners may have found common cause with monarchists longing for a restoration of past glories, these are forces aligned in a cynical disregard for the democratic aspirations of people in their own countries, and abroad. Read Toosi’s full piece here.