Editorial & Analyses

    Cooperating With Iran’s President-Elect Pezeshkian Will Far Outweigh The Risks

    Inam Ansari
    July10/ 2024
    Last Updated:

    Cooperating With Iran’s President-Elect Pezeshkian

    Dr. Alon Ben-Meir*

    The election of the reformist Masoud Pezeshkian as Iran’s president augurs well for the Iranian people and for relations between the West and Iran. With the best intentions, Pezeshkian may not be able to deliver on all his foreign and domestic agenda; nevertheless, it serves the US’ and Israel’s interests to give him every opportunity to succeed

    New York (The Hawk): The victory of reformist Masoud Pezeshkian in Iran's presidential runoff election should not have surprised many observers of the Iranian political scene. President-elect Pezeshkian is well-known for his progressive ideas on domestic and foreign relations. He knows that he rose to power at a pivotal time in his country’s domestic and foreign state of affairs. Given the domestic cynicism, lack of trust in any government, and the opposition of ultra-conservatives to any reformist, he is fully aware of the uphill battle he will have to wage, for which he needs the support of Khamenei to succeed. Finally, he recognizes that fixing the economy, which is in dire straits and directly linked to the sanctions imposed by the West due to the impasse over Iran’s nuclear program, needs to be on top of his agenda because of its immediate implications domestically and in relations with the West.
    It is true that the role of any Iranian president essentially is to carry out Ayatollah Khamenei’s orders with limited leeway in implementing a socio-economic agenda. The fact that Pezeshkian was tightly vetted by the Guardian Council and was still allowed to run despite his reformist stances suggests that Khamenei will give him more room to maneuver for two reasons. First, Khamenei desperately needs to assuage the public’s outcry about the harsh socio-economic condition in the country, which Pezeshkian promised to make his top priority to improve. Second, Pezeshkian’s election will signal that Iran will be more amenable to mending its relations with the West and prevent putting the country once again on a collision course with the US and Israel, reduce regional tension, and open the door for a constructive dialogue which ultimately serves Iran’s economic and political interests.
    Had Pezeshkian’s hardline rival Saeed Jalili won the election, Iran could have instead become even more determined to strengthen its military capabilities and aggressive posture while further bolstering the forces of its ’axis of resistance,’ Hezbollah and the Houthis, and replenish Hamas’ crippled military capability should it manage to reconstitute itself in Gaza. Iran would have also continued more aggressively to seek regional hegemony, further strengthening its relations with Russia and China and advancing its nuclear threshold to become a nuclear power.
    Many reasons warrant some optimism about Pezeshkian's victory, not only because of what he said and promised to do but also because many prominent Iranian politicians have openly expressed such optimism based on their knowledge and experience with Pezeshkian, both as a former member of Parliament and former Minister of Health. Former Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who served under the Rouhani government, campaigned for him and said the choice was between “day and night.” Another prominent politician, Ali Akbar Behmanesh, a reformist and head of Pezeshkian’s campaign in the province of Mazandaran, posted on X, “The end of the rule of the minority over the majority. Congratulations for the victory of wisdom over ignorance.” Saying as much publicly strengthens the argument that Khamenei tacitly supports and approves of what is expected from Pezeshkian.
    It is still legitimate to doubt Pezeshkian's ability to move quickly and unimpeded to implement his aggressive domestic agenda and improve Iran’s relations with the West, chiefly the US. Nevertheless, the United States needs a new strategy to encourage Pezeshkian to move in the desired direction. Behind the scenes, the US should convey its willingness to work with the new president, assuring that any measure of moderation he takes will be fully and correspondingly reciprocated. Pezeshkian can demonstrate that Iran is ready to change course and constructively become a more moderate player in three areas. First, Pezeshkian should signal that Iran is ready to resume its indirect negotiations with the US over its nuclear program. The new Iranian president will find the US more receptive to such openings, mainly because it is an election year in the US. Any improvement in the bilateral relations between the two countries will be welcome. Both sides are vested in improving the relationship. For the US, it is a win-win because regardless of the progress or lack thereof in the negotiation, it will not worsen. For Iran, any discernable progress in the talks could translate to lifting some of the sanctions, which is essential. The public is eagerly awaiting some relief from the horrendous economic hardship they have been experiencing for years. Any appreciable progress in this area will bolster Pezeshkian's standing and enable him to be more flexible in addressing other issues, such as the outcry of women against the mandatory wearing of the hijab, a law he supports relaxing.
    Second, given the substantial influence that Iran exerts on Hezbollah and the likelihood that a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas could potentially be consummated, Pezeshkian is in an improved position to lean heavily on Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader, to lower the tension with Israel by substantially reducing the trading of cross-border fire to prevent an all-out war with Israel, which Iran wants to avoid by any means it can. The violence would end entirely as soon as an agreement on the ceasefire is reached; in any case, Nasrallah has already stated that he would. This would allow the more than 70,000 Israelis who left their villages and towns along the Lebanese border to return home after a painful eight months of being displaced.
    Third, to demonstrate further willingness to calm the tension in the region, Pezeshkian is undoubtedly in a position to demand that the Houthis in Yemen desist from firing missiles and drones to disrupt commercial shipping in the Red Sea. Iran is the leading supplier of such weapons, and it is within the prerogative of the president to halt any future shipments. This will go a long way to assuage the Biden administration's concerns, especially at this juncture when President Biden needs to focus on the campaign and not be constantly distracted by the mounting tension in the Middle East.
    The Biden administration should take several necessary steps to facilitate Pezeshkian's taking such moderating measures. To begin with, as soon as the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program recommence, Biden should instruct his negotiating team to show some flexibility that would allow Pezeshkian to take some credit for his initiative and develop interest-based negotiating positions by identifying specific areas from which both sides can mutually benefit and on which they can build further progress.
    Second, President Biden must make it clear to Netanyahu (when he meets him on July 24) that a) under no circumstances should he publicly criticize the resumption of the nuclear negotiations, and b) he must not allow any targeted assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists or high-level military commanders, regardless of how tempting the target may be. Indeed, any provocation by Netanyahu will cause tremendous consternation throughout the Iranian military and civilian apparatus, making it impossible for Pezeshkian to show any flexibility or take any initiative along the lines above. I do not suggest that Iran will change its stripes overnight because of reformist President-elect Pezeshkian's election. I do believe, however, that his election provides a new opportunity to dramatically reduce regional tension and avert another war. President-elect Pezeshkian should be given every chance to succeed. The potential gains for the US and Israel will far outweigh the risks.

    *Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a retired professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.