Despite Reformist President’s Election, Some Question How Much Iran Will Change

Voters in Iran elected Masoud Pezeshkian as president Saturday. The heart surgeon and former health minister defeated hard-liner Saeed Jalili in a runoff vote held just weeks after President Ebrahim Raisi and other top officials died in a helicopter crash. Pezeshkian has criticized Iran’s mandatory hijab law for women and has promised to disband Iran’s morality police, as well as better relations with the United States and other Western countries in the hopes of lifting sanctions. Journalist Reza Sayah in Tehran says that while Pezeshkian spoke the language of the reformist movement, he also strived to show “he’s not going to be a disruptive force to the establishment.” We also speak with Persepolis author Marjane Satrapi, who says “elections in Iran are a farce” and that no candidate who reaches the presidency can really challenge the system. “The president does not change a lot.”


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, I’m Amy Goodman.

We end today’s show in Iran, where voters in elected Masoud Pezeshkian as the new president Saturday, defeating the hard-liner Saeed Jalili. Pezeshkian is a heart surgeon who had served as health minister under the reformist President Mohammad Khatami. He ran as a reformist candidate, criticized Iran’s mandatory hijab law for women, has promised to disband Iran’s so-called morality police.

Saturday’s election was held six weeks after the Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian died in a helicopter crash in May along with several other officials and crew. Raisi was elected in 2021 in a vote that saw the lowest-percentage turnout in the Islamic Republic’s history, after major opposition candidates were disqualified from taking part.

For more, we continue with Marjane Satrapi, French Iranian filmmaker, author of Woman, Life, Freedom. And in Tehran, we’re joined by Reza Sayah, freelance journalist, correspondent for France 24, Al Jazeera and CNN.

We welcome you both back to Democracy Now! Reza Sayah, talk about who the new president is.

REZA SAYAH: Well, I think, first and foremost, even though he tried to shake off the reformist label during his campaign, he is clearly supported by Iran’s reformist factions and its leaders. Mohammad Khatami, the former president, the former Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, they played a key role in his campaign. And this is a faction that wants better relations with the West, that’s more moderate, that takes a more moderate tone with Washington. They prefer not to chant the “death to America,” “death to Israel.”

Pezeshkian was a relatively low-profile candidate, a doctor, a heart surgeon, who served in the Iran-Iraq War as a doctor. He’s an Azeri Kurd from Iran’s western Azerbaijan province. It’s very likely he got a lot of support from the Kurdish minority and other minority groups.

In his campaign, he promised more liberties, social freedoms, something that many Iranians want, although he made these promises in very vague terms. He also made statements about Iran’s mandatory hijab law. He spoke directly to the Iranian women, said they’d been treated unfairly in the streets, seemingly referring to the crackdown after Mahsa Amini’s death, saying that they had been unfairly treated. He said, he suggested that the enforcement of the hijab law may be eased, but, again, he spoke in very vague terms. He pledged to get Western sanctions removed.

And all of these are reformist talking points that draw a lot of criticism from Iran’s conservatives and hard-liners. And seemingly, during his campaign and in efforts to ease those criticisms, he repeatedly said that he’s loyal to the supreme leader, loyal to the revolution, and that he’s not going to be a disruptive force to the establishment.

AMY GOODMAN: Marjane Satrapi, you wrote the book Woman, Life, Freedom. That was the mantra of the pro-democracy movement in Iran. Your assessment of what’s just taken place?

MARJANE SATRAPI: Listen, I think elections in Iran are a farce. Any candidate who has a possibility of standing is already chosen by the supreme guide, the Council of the Guardians and the guardian of the revolution. That said, I mean, once you have passed this exam, basically, you are one of them, and the real power is in the hand of the supreme guide and the guardian of the revolution. So, the president does not change a lot.

As soon as this regime knows that it is a dangerous situation, that the society is going to explode, it uses the reformist, the reformer, as a safety valve. They have done that with Khatami. They have done that in Rouhani. And during Khatami and during Rouhani, lots of people, they have been killed. I mean, you know, lots of them, they have gone to jail. So we should not think that they’re real reformists.

The official figure they say that is 40% of the Iranians, they have voted. But that is the official figure. When you look at the images that come from Iran, you see that all the polling stations, they are completely empty. So, this 40% is already low, but my guess is much lower.

But for me, all of that is done, as usual, to buy time. All the elected representatives of this country have their hand in the blood of the Iranian people, more or less, but they have their blood on the hand. Iranian young people, women, from all walks of life, they expressed a desire for a true secular democracy. And this regime will never change. They will cut off heads — as we say in Persian, they will cut off heads with cotton wool or with razor blade, but they will cut off heads, no matter.

The most important thing for me now is that the democracies do not resume their discussion with this regime, which arrests, tortures and rapes anyone who expresses their disagreements. This is a fact. If all the — the day that all the political prisoners are released, the day that our women, they are no longer killed or jailed for refusing to wear the veil, the day that we will see Narges Mohammadi or Toomaj Salehi back in the street, the day that we will have a first free press, then, OK, let’s talk about the reformists. Until now, they are just dogs of this regime.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask Reza Sayah a final question. We just have 30 seconds. And that is: Do you expect Iran’s relations with the U.S. might change under Pezeshkian, and particularly the issue of nuclear weapons?

REZA SAYAH: Well, that’s the big question: How will things change? It’s hard to say. The likelihood is that things are not going to change significantly, certainly immediately. Pezeshkian faces a conservative-dominated government. You know, that’s a challenge of entrenched power structures. They call the shots in foreign policy, including the supreme leader. These power structures call the shots when it comes to Iran’s foreign policy, the nuclear issue, its backing of regional militias. But I think, certainly, it’s likely that the tone of the government is going to change. Pezeshkian will likely become one of the —

AMY GOODMAN: And we’re going to have to leave it there, Reza Sayah. I want to thank you for being with us, independent journalist in Tehran, and Marjane Satrapi, French Iranian filmmaker. This is Democracy Now!