Pezeshkian’s win doesn’t change the fact that Iran is dangerously close to the bomb

Over 15 million Iranians turned out on Friday to cast their vote for reformist presidential candidate Massoud Pezeshkian, who defeated his uber-conservative rival Saeed Jalili.

Washington quickly sought to emphasize that it doesn’t anticipate the 69-year-old heart surgeon having any meaningful impact on the regime. “We have no expectation that this election will lead to a fundamental change in Iran’s direction or its policies,” US State Department spokesman Matthew Miller told reporters on Monday.

Miller stressed that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei makes the substantive decisions in Iran. “Obviously, if the new president had the authority to make steps to curtail Iran’s nuclear program, to stop funding terrorism, to stop destabilizing activities in the region, those would be steps that we would welcome,” Miller said. “But needless to say, we don’t have any expectation that that’s what’s likely to ensue.”

Israel offered a similar message. The Foreign Ministry posted on Instagram an image of Khamenei with the word “before” over it, and an identical image of the supreme leader with the word “after” over it.

Did millions of Iranians participate in a meaningless exercise, one that would have no impact of the fate of their country and of the region?

Half the country apparently felt that way. Turnout in the first round only scraped 40 percent, the lowest since the shah was deposed in 1979. Even Khamenei admitted that turnout was “lower than expected.”

That number climbed to 50% in the run-off, but much of the increase came from fear of what a Jalili victory would have meant for the country, explained Raz Zimmt, Iran scholar at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.

“The vast majority of the public does not believe in the regime, and doesn’t believe in the possibility of effecting meaningful change under this regime,” he continued.

Until the previous president Ebrahim Raisi’s tenure ended abruptly with a fatal helicopter crash on the side of a mountain in May, the country’s arch-conservatives had enjoyed control over all the levers of power in the country for the past three years. The economy stagnated under sanctions, and inflation spiraled.

Government apologists could shift some blame for Iran’s economic woes on the Western sanctions, but it was impossible to explain away the brutal crackdowns on protests under Raisi.

While the presence of the infamous morality police decreased under Hassan Rouhani, a moderate who was replaced by Raisi in 2021, they came back with a vengeance during the “Woman, Life, Freedom” protests that erupted in 2022, after Kurdish woman Mahsa Amini died in the custody of the regime’s sharia enforcers.

There is some hope that Pezeshkian can reduce internet filtering and the enforcement of hijab laws.

“With Pezeshkian,” said Sina Toossi, a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy, “it holds the promise that there might be incremental change, some improvements on some of these things, and hopefully an improved economic situation if he manages to get sanctions lifted.”

Waiting on supreme leader’s decision

Pezeshkian can’t get those sanctions lifted alone, however. He has limited influence over foreign policy.

On Iran’s policies across the Middle East, Pezeshkian is simply not a player. Those decisions are made by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, which is answerable to Khamenei.

Even if he could affect Iran’s posture toward Israel, Pezeshkian falls firmly within the regime consensus. “The Islamic Republic has always supported the resistance of the people of the region against the illegitimate Zionist regime,” Pezeshkian said Monday in a message to Hassan Nasrallah, leader of the Iran-backed Lebanese Hezbollah terror group currently fighting Israel.

But the president isn’t powerless on all foreign policy issues. He heads the executive branch, appoints ministers — including the foreign minister — and manages the economy and budgets.

He also heads the powerful Supreme National Security Council.

“The supreme leader has veto power over the decisions of the Supreme National Security Council,” said Toossi, “but he generally just goes along with the consensus that’s shaped in the Council.”

On the direction of Iran’s nuclear program, however, Khamenei doesn’t leave decisions to others.

“The central question is whether Khamenei is ready for and wants, now or after January, to restart the diplomatic process with the US,” said Zimmt. “I’m not at all convinced.”

If Khamenei does give the green light for new talks with the US, Pezeshkian will certainly be more committed to the process than Raisi was or Jalili would have been. He surrounded himself with key figures from past negotiations, including former foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and senior diplomat Abbas Araghchi.

Still, those talks could only go so far. They would likely offer similar concessions to the limits in the 2015 JCPOA agreement, including some limits on enrichment and on its stockpile alongside IAEA inspections.

“Iran’s nuclear program is far too advanced to entice any real rollback,” said Jonathan Ruhe, director of foreign policy at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America.

Iran could still find some benefit in talks, he argued: “The US and Europe would then pressure Israel against any military action that derails their diplomatic efforts, and it would buy time until UN, US and European sanctions vanish permanently just over a year from now.”

While much of the focus in Israel this year has been on the war against Hamas in Gaza — and that of the US and Europe on domestic politics and the Ukraine conflict as well — Iran has been moving closer to nuclear weapons capability.

The New York Times reported recently that Iran’s leadership is conducting a “strategic debate” over whether the time has come for it to start making nuclear weapons.

Iran has enriched enough uranium to 60% purity for at least three bombs. It is only a matter of days before Iran could convert uranium enriched to 60% to bomb-grade fuel.

It has also installed 1,400 “next-generation centrifuges” at its Fordo enrichment facility in recent weeks, and would thus be able to double that inventory in weeks or months should it so choose, according to the report.

According to an Axios report, citing three Israeli officials, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reestablished a series of working groups in June to deal with Iran’s nuclear program, amid concern that the Islamic Republic could aim to move toward the bomb as early as January.

“At this point, Iran can threaten to take the final few steps to achieve a bomb more believably than anybody can threaten to stop it,” said Ruhe. “When Netanyahu drew his UN red line in 2012, it would have been unbelievable that nobody took serious military action before Iran reached its current, incredibly advanced stage.”

Originally published by The Times of Israel.