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IranSource June 21, 2024

Don’t be fooled by the ‘reformist.’ Iran’s presidential election won’t bring fundamental change.

By Holly Dagres

“Does the potential election of Masoud Pezeshkian in Iran provide a glimmer of hope for reform and a possibility of diplomacy in the region?” US Representative Ro Khanna (D-CA) posed this question on X on June 16. In recent days, reformist politicians, including former President Mohammad Khatami—relics of the past for many Iranians—began throwing their weight behind the sole reformist presidential candidate, Pezeshkian. The member of parliament representing the northwestern city of Tabriz is one of six candidates—the remainder are principalists (known in the West as “hardliners”)—partaking in the upcoming presidential election prompted by the death of then President Ebrahim Raisi in a helicopter crash on May 19. 

The reformist faction has controlled major power centers in Iran, such as the presidency and parliament. However, despite their promises of “reform” and increased civil liberties, their rule was marked by bloody crackdowns, and Iranians are no longer fooled by such undeliverable and false promises.

Just months prior to Raisi’s death, Khatami—whose name and face have been blacked out from appearing in state media for supporting the 2009 post-election protests known as the Green Movement—boycotted the March parliamentary election. That election was described by the Iranian Reformist Front, a coalition of reformist factions, as “meaningless, noncompetitive, and ineffective” because all reformists had effectively been disqualified. Yet, Khatami, the face of the bygone reformist era that aimed to democratize the country, still placed faith in a system and role he once described as no more than a “footman” to maintain the status quo that most Iranians—especially Iranian Gen Z—are disillusioned by and want gone, as evidenced by a poll conducted by Netherlands-based GAMAAN in February.


The reformist movement in the Islamic Republic has long been dead. Activist Bahareh Hedayat, who spent her life advocating for gradual change, confirmed it in a letter from Evin prison—where she continues to languish—at the height of the 2022 Women, Life, Freedom uprising. Former Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif stated in a March audio leak that the clerical establishment sought the movement’s “erasure.” (Despite his leaked comments, Zarif has now joined Pezeshkian’s campaign team because he believes in overriding loyalty to the Islamic Republic.)

The trajectory of the Islamic Republic in recent years makes it abundantly clear that there is no room for reform under Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, with principalists—up until Raisi’s death—leading all government branches: the presidency, parliament, and judiciary. This was no accident and engineered by Khamenei, who, with the help of the Guardian Council—a twelve-member vetting body in which six are appointed by him directly—is making every calculation with the Islamic Republic post-mortem in mind. The supreme leader’s vision is an Islamic Revolution 2.0, in which relatively young ultraconservatives take the helm of the country—a new cohort nicknamed the “super revolutionaries.” 

The Islamic Republic had two historically low-turnout elections: the 2021 presidential election—or “selection,” as many described it at the time—which was engineered to hand the presidency to Raisi with 48.8 percent turnout and the March 2024 parliamentary election, which gave 233 out of 290 seats to the principalists with 41 percent turnout, an outcome not much different from the 2020 election. Khamenei has always emphasized that the regime’s legitimacy stemmed from its popularity and always encourages citizens to vote to show that popular support.

Since the December 2017–January 2018 protests, protesters have vocalized that all factions are irredeemable, as evident by the chant: “Reformists, principalists, the game is over.” This is likely why one reformist was allowed to run: to stimulate a higher voter turnout to give the clerical establishment legitimacy, which it lacks domestically. However, the Islamic Republic does not lack legitimacy on the international stage, as it recommenced ties with its Persian Gulf Arab neighbors including Saudi Arabia, has joined the economic grouping known as BRICS and the more security-focused Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and has continued to attend international conferences such as the World Economic Forum in Davos.

Iranian elections are unpredictable, though Pezeshkian could slightly move the election needle, leading to a second round. Still, the average Iranian is not stirred by a man who uses Khamenei’s formal title and claims that he intends to follow “the general policies of the exalted supreme leader” —language not commonly used by reformists.

And while he seems to be hitting all the buzz-worthy topics such as reviving the defunct nuclear deal and speaking out against the so-called morality police’s latest crackdown on women and girls, the Nour initiative, Pezeshkian has not moved the public, as evidenced by one interview that was described as “boring.”

Pezeshkian has also co-opted the de facto Women, Life, Freedom protest anthem “Baraye” (For the sake of) by singer Shervin Hajipour in his campaign, using “For the sake of wanting a normal life” in an election poster and “For the sake of Iran” as a campaign hashtag. The song reference has angered many Iranians who haven’t forgotten how more than 550 protesters—including sixty-eight children—were killed during the uprising (and the more than 1,500 others in previous protests), as shown by the slogan, “A sea of blood divides us,” referring to the people and the clerical establishment. To many, Pezeshkian and other candidates are merely puppets, which was best highlighted by a viral meme of candidates’ faces superimposed on Khamenei. I’ve been repeatedly told that Iranians are so unenthusiastic about the upcoming election that boycotting is not even a serious topic of conversation, because many assume that is what the majority will do. Even a poll conducted by the Iranian Students Polling Agency (ISPA) noted that 73 percent of Iranians didn’t follow the first presidential debate.

Elections aside, Iranians are drowning in hopelessness, prompted by multiple unsuccessful cycles of protests aimed at ending the Islamic Republic; a dire economic situation caused by systemic mismanagement, corruption, and, in part, US sanctions; and the brutal clampdowns on dissent. The June 15 prisoner swap of two Swedish nationals for Hamid Nouri, an Iranian official who was convicted of war crimes for his role in the 1988 massacre of five thousand political prisoners, was just another instance that demonstrated to Iranians that they could not rely on the West to hold the Islamic Republic accountable. The only way out of this conundrum is if Iranians take their destiny into their own hands. And if one thing is certain, it’s that their destinies will not be determined by the ballot box.

Holly Dagres is a nonresident senior fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Middle East programs and editor of the Atlantic Council’s IranSource blog. She is also the author of the “Iranians on #SocialMedia” report. Follow her on X: @hdagres.

Further reading

Image: Presidential candidate Masoud Pezeshkian shows the victory sign during a campaign event in Tehran, Iran June 19, 2024. Majid Asgaripour/WANA (West Asia News Agency) via REUTERS