Members of Iran's Reform Front attempt to portray Masoud Pezeshkian as a moderate presidential candidate compared to his rival Saeed Jalili. But does he genuinely embody moderation as a regime insider?

Hardliners such as Jalili more openly prioritize Islamic Republic values above all else, while Pezeshkian's supporters are trying to morph him into the already existent duality of reformists vs fundamentalists in the system.

This may be an effort to fabricate a sense of competition and address historically low voter turnout, in successive elections since 2020.

However, so far it has failed, as Friday's first round of the presidential election saw a turnout of under 40%, the lowest since the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979. Nevertheless, their efforts persist ahead of the upcoming runoff on Friday: to instill fear of the competitor, Saeed Jalili, portraying him as the very monster people dread, thereby rallying voters to flock to the polling stations supporting Pezeshkian.

On Saturday, Pezeshkian emphasized, "We must secure ourselves and avert disaster. Let us awaken to the realization that what could transpire is no laughing matter; untrustworthy, inexperienced, and potentially dangerous individuals could transform Iran into a colossal laboratory of bizarre ideas."

Following protests in Iran since 2017, which significantly intensified in 2022 with the "Woman Life Freedom" movement, the popular mood has become clear. Many feel the current establishment falls short of meeting their needs, prompting calls for a new political system.

Against this backdrop, three key political arenas loom large: human rights, particularly women's freedom; the unchecked power of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC); and the economy, deeply entwined with tensions involving the West and Israel.

'Reformists' are endeavoring to portray Pezeshkian as a champion of women's rights, critical of the system's oppression of women, and advocating the lifting of sanctions and fostering better international relations, including a shift in foreign policy. Ultimately, they aim to depict him as a politician opposed to the IRGC rather than a supporter.

A retrospective examination of Pezeshkian’s parliamentary career, which started in 2008 and continues to this day, starkly contrasts with the reformist faction's portrayal, particularly regarding his positions in these critical arenas.

Let's juxtapose the image projected by the reformists who endorse Pezeshkian by examining his historical record and political stance on the ground.

Masoud Pezeshkian

Stance on women's rights:

In May 2010, Pezeshkian was among those lawmakers who supported a bill in Parliament promoting the Islamic principle of publicly shaming women who defy the mandatory hijab. Vigilantes sometimes use this principle to confront others, occasionally resorting to violence in the name of religious duty.

During the 2022 Women's Life Freedom event, Pezeshkian remarked, "This situation only benefits the hypocrites and enemies of the Iranian people, who seek to sow turmoil and unrest and widen the gap between the people and the government."

He also denounced the protests as orchestrated acts of aggression, attributing Iran's most significant uprising since the inception of the Islamic Republic to the influence of the US and Europe.

At the same time, security forces' crackdown on protesters, which led to the deaths of at least 550 protesters, was denounced as a crime against humanity by a UN fact-finding mission.

The bill allowed citizens to be sentenced to financial fines, imprisonment, and exile, which underpins the current violent clashes involving women on the streets of the Islamic Republic.

Despite benefiting from the reformists' current support, Pezeshkian echoes their narrative only partially and consistently references Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei's principles as the basis of his plans. Former Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif is the leading proponent advancing this constructed reformist narrative. Zarif, who once claimed to have 'zero' power during his tenure, now claims that the presidential administration can have a major role in shaping people's lives.

On Saturday, during a presidential campaign event endorsing Pezeshkian, Zarif remarked, “They [the conservatives] are the architects behind all the oppressive laws, internet restrictions, the Nour Plan, etc."

The Nour Plan is an initiative introduced in Iran in April, focusing on enforcing strict hijab regulations for women; it came into effect following a directive by Supreme Leader Khamenei. This policy has resulted in the violent arrest of hundreds of women across various cities in Iran and has been referred to as "gender apartheid" by the United Nations.

Masoud Pezeshkian in IRGC uniform at parliament

Stance on IRGC:

In 2019, when then-US President Donald Trump designated the IRGC as a terrorist organization, Pezeshkian and his parliamentary peers pushed Iran to escalate tensions with the US. They introduced legislation that became law under the title "Strengthening the position of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps against the United States."

This, in turn, consolidated more power for the IRGC in political and economic spheres, tightening its grip on the Iranian government and other institutions within the Islamic Republic. This also intensified repression, escalated violence against citizens, and heightened insecurity and conflicts with neighboring countries.

Pezeshkian also wore the Revolutionary Guard uniform alongside fellow parliamentarians in solidarity with the IRGC one day after Trump's decision.

During a university lecture in December 2022, he responded to a student criticizing his choice to wear the IRGC uniform, stating, "Without the IRGC, this country would have been divided, and our work would have ended."

Also, even during the current presidential election debates, he openly expressed unconditional and uncritical support for the IRGC, describing their missiles and drones as "a source of pride."

This sharply contrasts with how reformists, led by Zarif, try to portray themselves as opponents of the IRGC.

Zarif had accused IRGC Quds Force commander Soleimani of meddling in diplomatic efforts, including the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) signed in 2015. He also labeled two prominent IRGC figures as "corrupt and liars."

In an audio file released by Iran Wire on the 2024 parliamentary election, Zarif discussed the ongoing rivalry between reformists and IRGC-affiliated individuals, specifically mentioning figures like Hossein Taeb, former head of the IRGC Intelligence Organization, and Mohammad Ali Jafari, former IRGC commander-in-chief.

Stance on foreign policy:

The third area underpinning many of Iran's current economic and international crises is the ongoing tensions between the Islamic Republic and the West and particularly their ally Israel.

In December 2008, during his tenure in parliament, Pezeshkian and 39 other members proposed a bill, turned into law, titled "Obliging the government to provide all-round support to Palestine," which called for significant Iranian intervention in Gaza.

This plan demanded the Iranian government reassess its political and economic relations with countries supporting Israel, effectively promoting confrontation with a large group of powerful nations. It also sought to prevent Israeli goods from entering Iran and prohibited contracts with companies whose principal shareholders were Israeli entities.

Implementing this plan intensified Iran's political confrontation with Western countries, leading to significant economic costs due to disrupted trade.

Now, as they campaign for the presidency, Pezeshkian and his team steer clear of this anti-Western history. They promote de-escalation and global peace to attract support from many Iranians who despise the government's confrontational foreign policy. In recent economic and political debates, Pezeshkian has repeatedly emphasized the necessity of having good relations with other countries, stating that "we must have relations with the world" and advocating for stronger ties with all nations except Israel.

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