Pezeshkian wearing the Revolutionary Guard uniform in solidarity after the US listed it as a terrorist entity in 2019.

Mislabeling Pezeshkian: The truth about Iran’s new president

Monday, 07/08/2024

Immediately following Masoud Pezeshkian's victory over Saeed Jalili in Iran’s heavily manipulated presidential election, most Western media outlets and news agencies labeled him as a “reformist” and “moderate.”

The media also described Jalili as a “hardliner,” “conservative,” or “ultraconservative.”

But do these labels, often used to dramatize politics and create a "devil and angel" narrative, accurately describe these two individuals and their supporters? Many Iran observers would say no.

Like Jalili, Pezeshkian announced during the campaigns that he fully adheres to the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei’s, policies and has "melted into Khamenei’s leadership."

To most, there is no doubt that both of them are staunch Islamists.

On certain issues, it would appear challenging to portray Pezeshkian as a libertarian and individualist politician who respects individual rights.

First, considering the “reformist” label: Pezeshkian has neither claimed to be a reformist nor been a member of reformist parties or groups in the last three decades.

During the debates, he referred to himself as a "principlist reformist," which was seen by many as merely spin.

Pezeshkian was a minister in former President Mohammad Khatami's cabinet two decades ago, but that was a multi-party and multi-sectarian government, including participants from across the political spectrum.

Pezeshkian’s membership in Khatami's administration, can therefore not be seen as evidence that he is a reformist.

Additionally, during the campaigns, he did not mention any of the reformist programs and policies from the Khatami era, such as media freedom, increasing the power of elected institutions compared to appointed ones, empowering civil society institutions, and canceling the Guardian Council’s power to disqualify candidates.

And, when it comes to being a “moderate”, Pezeshkian’s track record has shown that he is no different from Jalili and the other candidates.

He has been a strong advocate of compulsory hijab and cancel culture, even stating that he enforced these policies in a hospital and university under his management right after the 1979 Islamic takeover, before they were mandated. His complaints about officials being harsh on women are inconsistent with his voting record for laws restricting women's rights during his tenure in the parliament (Majles).

Saeed Jalili meeting Fidel Castro in 2005

Another issue discussed in the 2024 election was internet filtering. During the debates, Pezeshkian repeatedly defended shutting down the internet, as was done for a week during the repressions of November 2019, and filtering social networks in the context of public protests. Security forces killed at least 1,500 civilians during that week, as the government shut off the Internet to prevent news of the atrocities reaching the outside world.

In the case of the murder of Iranian-Canadian journalist Zahra Kazemi in 2003 while she was in custody in Evin prison, Pezeshkian, as an investigating physician, did not describe her death as unusual. This was despite the fact that her body was buried without her family's knowledge, and her grave was completely cemented to prevent an autopsy and subsequent investigations.

To many, Pezeshkian is as conservative as Jalili and cannot be portrayed as a liberal or libertarian.

In the Iranian context, being conservative or ultra-conservative typically means believing in Sharia law and implementing its verdicts in society using the government’s coercive power.

During the Khatami and Hassan Rouhani administrations, Western media also described these two leaders, who were Islamists committed to implementing Sharia law like Khomeini, as liberal and moderate, thereby misleading their readers.

Khatami and Rouhani sought de-escalation with the West to preserve the Islamic system and implement Sharia laws within it; for this reason, they can be considered non-anti-Western. However, in their stance on erasing Israel off the map, anti-Semitism, anti-Bahá'íism, negating the rights of the LGBT community, limiting women's rights, and denying social and cultural freedoms, they believed and acted like the founder of the Islamic Republic.

For this reason, using the term "liberal" to describe them or their administrations could be considered a form of deception of Western public opinion.

Given the context and political background of Muslim-majority societies, particularly those with Islamists in power like Iran and Afghanistan, using labels such as left and right, conservative and liberal, and moderate and radical can be misleading and problematic.

Labeling high-ranking officials, whose government engages in torturing opponents, imprisoning writers and journalists, violating the basic rights of Jews and Christians, and supporting the killing of street protesters, as "liberal" or "moderate" misrepresents their actions and undermines the experiences of victims of totalitarian regimes.

Pezeshkian's political, social, and cultural positions are closely aligned with those of Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Lebanon's Hezbollah; otherwise, he would be rejected by the Guardian Council.

The new president aligns himself closely with Hezbollahi principles – some might even call him a Hezbollahi personified.

If one considers Hassan Nasrallah and Hezbollah to be moderate and reformist, the same descriptors could be applied to Pezeshkian.

This alignment is further evidenced by Nasrallah's congratulatory message to Pezeshkian: "We are by your side and, God willing, we will continue this way until we reach the final victory, the axis of which is the mighty, dear, and powerful Iran."

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