What does reformist Masoud Pezeshkian’s election win mean for Iran’s future?  

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Newly elected Iranian President Masoud Pezeshkian surrounded by supporters, main, outside a polling station in Tehran on July 6, 2024. (AFP)
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Iran's newly-elected President Masoud Pezeshkian is greeted during his visit to the shrine of the Islamic Republic's founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in Tehran on July 6, 2024. (AFP)
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Updated 07 July 2024
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What does reformist Masoud Pezeshkian’s election win mean for Iran’s future?  

  • Heart surgeon and former MP will be Islamic Republic’s first reformist Iranian president since 2005
  • The election witnessed record low voter turnout with less than half of eligible voters casting their ballots

ATHENS, Greece: Iran reformist Masoud Pezeshkian’s victory over his hardline rival Saeed Jalili in the country’s presidential runoff on Saturday offers Iranians desperate for change a sliver of hope, according to political observers.

While many Iranians are too disillusioned with their government to feel optimistic, some believe Pezeshkian’s win points to the possibility of reform in the midst of economic turmoil, corruption, and crackdowns on dissent.

The first round of elections began on June 28, just over a month after President Ebrahim Raisi died in a helicopter crash.





Newly-elected Iranian President Masoud Pezeshkian gestures during a visit to the shrine of the Islamic Republic's founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in Tehran on July 6, 2024.(AFP)

However, the election failed to generate more than 50 percent of votes for any candidate, with the lowest turnout since the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Videos circulating on social media platforms, including X, showed almost empty polling stations across the country.

“How can you, while holding a sword, gallows, weapons, and prisons against the people with one hand, place a ballot box in front of the same people with the other hand, and deceitfully and falsely call them to the polls?” Narges Mohammadi, the imprisoned Iranian human rights activist and Nobel laureate, said in a statement from Evin Prison.


BIO

  • Name: Masoud Pezeshkian
  • Year of birth: 1954
  • City of birth: Mahabad, Iran
  • Occupation: Heart surgeon

The underwhelming turnout is part of a trend that began four years ago with the country’s 2020 parliamentary election, according to Ali Vaez, Iran Project director at the International Crisis Group (ICG).

“This clearly shows that the majority of the Iranian people have given up on the ballot box as a viable vehicle for change,” he told Arab News.

“The head-to-head between Jalili and Pezeshkian in the second round was a contest between two opposite ends of the spectrum acceptable to the system: Jalili’s hard-line, ideological approach and Pezeshkian’s moderate, liberal stance created intense polarization, seemingly driving a higher voter turnout. Jalili embodies confrontational foreign policy and restrictive social policies, while Pezeshkian advocates for moderate reforms and diplomatic engagement.”




Iran's presidential election candidate Saeed Jalili, a hard-line former nuclear negotiator, casts his vote for the presidential runoff election at a polling station in Qarchak near Tehran on July 5, 2024. (AP)

Political analysts voiced cautious optimism in the wake of Pezeshkian’s victory.

“Pezeshkian prevailed in an election where just 50 percent of voters went to the polls. He lacks the mandate enjoyed by Iran’s previous reform-minded presidents. But boycotting is what made his candidacy possible,” Esfandyar Batmanghelidj, founder and CEO of the UK-based Bourse & Bazaar Foundation think tank, said on X on Saturday.




Iranian expatriates in Kuwait cast their votes at the Gulf country’s embassy in a closely watched presidential election. (AFP)

“Both voters and non-voters had an influence on this remarkable outcome. The turnout was high enough to push Pezeshkian into office, but low enough to deny the (Iranian regime) legitimacy and to maintain political pressure for more significant change.”

Some Iranians have said that while they do not have any great expectations for Pezeshkian’s governance, their decision to vote for him was motivated by the desire for change, however small.




A woman casts her vote for the presidential election in a polling station at the shrine of Saint Saleh in northern Tehran on July 5, 2024. (AP) 

“The reason for my vote is not that I have any special hopes for his government, no. I voted because I believe that society’s explosive desire for change is now so strong and ready to erupt that even if a small opportunity is provided, society itself … will change many things for the better,” Iranian journalist and Sadra Mohaqeq, who voted for Pezeshkian, said on Friday.

Pezeshkian, a heart surgeon whose political career includes a tenure as the Iranian health minister, will be the first reformist to assume the office of president in Iran since 2005. His promises include efforts to improve relations with the West and a relaxation of Iran’s mandatory headscarf law.

With both Azeri and Kurdish roots, he also supports the rights of minorities in Iran. Minority groups often bore the brunt of state-sanctioned violence in the wake of the 2022-2023 protests sparked by the death of Mahsa (Jina) Amini in police custody. 




Supporters hold portraits of Iran's newly-elected president Masoud Pezeshkian visits the shrine of the Islamic Republic's founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in Tehran on July 6, 2024. (AFP)

After Amini’s death, Pezeshkian said that it was “unacceptable in the Islamic Republic to arrest a girl for her hijab and then hand over her dead body to her family.”

However, just days later, amid nationwide protests and brutal crackdowns by the government, he warned protesters against “insulting the supreme leader.” For even the most optimistic of Iran observers, it is clear that Pezeshkian still answers to the country’s head of state.

“Despite being a reformist, Pezeshkian is loyal to the supreme leader of Iran, and reformists in Iran generally cannot pursue reforms that challenge the vision, goals, and values of the Islamic Revolution. The ultimate authority doesn’t rest with President-elect Pezeshkian but with (Supreme Leader Ali) Khamenei,” Mohammed Albasha, senior Middle East analyst for the US-based Navanti Group, told Arab News.




Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei votes during the presidential election in Tehran, on July 5, 2024. (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader/WANA/Handout via REUTERS)

Furthermore, even if Pezeshkian proves willing to strongly push for reforms, the Iranian political environment is still dominated by hardliners.

Vaez said: “Given Pezeshkian’s relatively low votes, the continued conservative dominance of other state institutions, and the limits of presidential authority, Pezeshkian will face an uphill battle in securing the greater social and cultural rights at home and diplomatic engagement abroad he’s emphasized in debates and on the campaign trail.”

While Pezeshkian has expressed support for domestic reforms and improved international relations, he has also voiced his unequivocal support for the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

He has condemned the former Trump administration’s decision to label the IRGC as a terrorist organization and has worn the IRGC uniform in public meetings. 

Opinion

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It is unclear how Pezeshkian will reconcile a desire for ties with the West with his views, particularly given that the IRGC has been designated as a terrorist group by the US, Sweden, and Canada.

An increased push for improved ties with the West may also draw the ire of the Islamic Republic’s strongest military and economic allies, such as China and Russia. 

However, Pezeshkian may not have much choice in the matter, regardless of his own aspirations.

“The president in Tehran is primarily responsible for implementing the daily agenda, not setting it. Nuclear policy, regional alliances, and relations with the West are dictated by the supreme leader and the Revolutionary Guard,” the Navanti Group’s Albasha said.




This handout picture taken on November 19, 2023, shows Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei with Hossein Salami (center), head of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, the head of the corps' aerospace division, (R) during a visit at the IRGC aerospace achievement exhibition in Tehran. (KHAMENEI.IR handout/ AFP)

Though not the head of state, Pezeshkian will undoubtedly have some influence over Iran’s domestic and foreign policies, as well as economic policy.

The government of Iran’s last reformist president, Mohammad Khatami, was characterized by some liberalization, including freedom of expression, a free market economy, and improved diplomatic relations with other countries.

Only time will tell how much change Pezeshkian is willing, or able, to bring about.

Pezeshkian’s election win is not a turning point, ICG’s Vaez said, but “another twist in the complex political dynamics of a system that remains split between those who want the 1979 revolution to mellow and those who want it to remain permanent.”
 

 


Israeli army attacks kill five Lebanese in 24 hours, including two women

Updated 57 min ago
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Israeli army attacks kill five Lebanese in 24 hours, including two women

  • Hezbollah responds by shelling Kiryat Shmona; warns of ‘severe response’ if Israel launches large-scale war in Lebanon
  • A Hezbollah member and his 2 sisters died on Monday night in an attack on their home, and 2 people on a motorcycle were killed on Tuesday by a drone attack

BEIRUT: Israel continued to target Hezbollah members on Tuesday with attacks by combat drones, less than 24 hours after a member of the party and his two sisters were killed in an air assault on their home in the town of Bint Jbeil.

On Tuesday afternoon, an Israeli drone launched a missile at a motorcycle on the Khardali road, a strategic route connecting the Nabatieh area to Marjayoun, killing two people.

An eyewitness said: “The motorcycle was carrying two persons, and when several citizens tried to approach the targeted motorcycle, it was subjected to a second airstrike with a guided missile.”

On Monday evening, Israeli warplanes had conducted intense raids on the towns of Bint Jbeil, Kfarkela, Mays Al-Jabal and Marwahin, destroying several homes and causing significant damage.

One of the strikes hit the home of Amer Jamil Dagher and his sisters, Taghreed and Fawzia, in Bint Jbeil, destroying it and killing all three, who were said to be in their 40s and 50s.

Hezbollah mourned their deaths and they were buried on Tuesday afternoon in their hometown, 18 people from which have been killed since fighting in southern Lebanon began on Oct. 8.

The Israeli army said it had “targeted Hezbollah infrastructure in several areas in southern Lebanon on Monday night to eliminate threats.”

Hezbollah said it responded to the attacks by “shelling the Kiryat Shmona settlement with dozens of Falaq and Katyusha rockets.”

Meanwhile, Israeli forces also shelled the outskirts of Deir Mimas and the town of Yohmor Al-Shaqif, along the Litani River.

Lebanese Civil Defense teams and paramedics from Hezbollah and the Amal Movement reportedly worked through the night fighting fires in forests alongside the river caused by Israeli phosphorus shells.

Hezbollah said it had targeted a “gathering of Israeli enemy soldiers around the Pranit barracks opposite the Lebanese border town of Rmeish,” “spy equipment at the Al-Raheb site” and “Al-Samaqa site in the occupied Kfarchouba hills.”

MP Mohammed Raad, the head of Hezbollah’s parliamentary bloc, threatened Israel with “a severe response if the Israeli army launches a large-scale war in Lebanon.”

He added: “The Israeli army knows this. We know the enemy’s strengths and weaknesses, and it knows we know its weaknesses.”

Raad urged the “enemy to stop its evil against Lebanon and Gaza; we are ready to cease fire on the Lebanese front if the aggression on Gaza stops and the enemy will comply with this.”


Israeli drone strike along Lebanon-Syria border kills Syrian businessman close to the government

Updated 46 min 59 sec ago
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Israeli drone strike along Lebanon-Syria border kills Syrian businessman close to the government

  • Mohammed Baraa Katerji was killed when a drone strike hit his car near the area of Saboura, a few kilometers inside Syria
  • Strike came as Israel and Lebanon’s Hezbollah group have been exchanging fire on an almost daily basis since early October

BEIRUT: An Israeli drone strike on a car Monday near the Lebanon-Syria border killed a prominent Syrian businessman who was sanctioned by the United States and had close ties to the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad, according to pro-government media and an official from an Iran-backed group.
Mohammed Baraa Katerji was killed when a drone strike hit his car near the area of Saboura, a few kilometers or miles inside Syria after apparently crossing from Lebanon. Israel’s air force has carried out hundreds of airstrikes in recent years, mainly targeting members of Iran-backed groups and Syria’s military. But it has been rare to hit personalities from within the government.
The strike also came as Israel and Lebanon’s Hezbollah group have been exchanging fire on an almost daily basis since early October, after the start of the Israel-Hamas war.
An official from an Iran-backed group said that Katerji was killed instantly while in his SUV on the highway linking Lebanon with Syria. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak to the media.
The pro-government Al-Watan daily quoted unnamed “sources” as saying that Katerji, 48, was killed in a “Zionist drone strike on his car.” It gave no further details.
Rami Abdurrahman, who heads the Britain-based opposition war monitor Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said that Katerji was killed while in a car with Lebanese license plates, adding that he was apparently targeted because he used to fund the “Syrian resistance” against Israel in the Golan Heights, as well as his links to Iran-backed groups in Syria.
Israel, which has vowed to stop Iranian entrenchment in its northern neighbor, has carried out hundreds of strikes on targets in government-controlled parts of Syria in recent years, but it rarely acknowledges them.
The US Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, or OFAC, sanctioned Katerji in 2018 as Assad’s middleman to trade oil with the Daesh group and for facilitating weapons shipments from Iraq to Syria.
The US Treasury declined Associated Press requests for comment. The sanctions imposed on Katerji were authorized under an Obama-era executive order issued in 2011 that prohibits certain transactions with Syria. A search of the OFAC database indicates that the sanctions were still in effect against Katerji and his firm at the time of his death.
OFAC said in 2018 that Katerji was responsible for import and export activities in Syria and assisted with transporting weapons and ammunition under the pretext of importing and exporting food items. These shipments were overseen by the US­ designated Syrian General Intelligence Directorate, according to OFAC.
It added that the Syria-based Katerji Company is a trucking company that has also shipped weapons from Iraq to Syria. Additionally, in a 2016 trade deal between the government of Syria and IS, the Katerji Company was identified as the exclusive agent for providing supplies to IS-controlled areas, including oil and other commodities.
Katerji and his brother, Hussam — widely referred to in Syria as the “Katerji brothers” — got involved in oil business a few years after the country’s conflict began in March 2011. Hussam Katerji is a former member of Syria’s parliament.


US military destroys 5 Houthi drones amid escalating ship attacks

Updated 16 July 2024
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US military destroys 5 Houthi drones amid escalating ship attacks

  • Centcom: It was determined these UAVs presented an imminent threat to US, coalition forces and merchant vessels in the region
  • Houthis also fired an explosive and remotely controlled boat at the MT Chios Lion, a Greek-operated, Marshall Islands-owned, crude oil tanker

AL-MUKALLA: US naval forces in the Red Sea destroyed a barrage of drones launched by Yemen’s Houthis as the militia increased drone, boat and missile strikes on ships in international commercial channels.

The US military said in a statement on Tuesday that its forces intercepted three Houthi unmanned aerial vehicles over the Red Sea and two more over Houthi-held areas of war-torn Yemen during the past 24 hours, all of which were aimed against international commercial and navy ships.

“It was determined these UAVs presented an imminent threat to US, coalition forces and merchant vessels in the region. These actions were taken to protect freedom of navigation and make international waters safer and more secure,” US Central Command said on X.

During the last 24 hours, the Houthis targeted a Panama-flagged, Israel-owned, Monaco-operated tanker vessel, MT Bentley I, which was transporting vegetable oil from Russia to China. The militia deployed three surface ships, one explosive-laden drone boat and two small boats, causing no damage to the ship or casualties, according to the US military.

The Houthis subsequently launched a ballistic missile from Yemeni territory toward the same ship in the Red Sea.

The Houthis also fired an explosive and remotely controlled boat at the MT Chios Lion, a Greek-operated, Marshall Islands-owned crude oil tanker operating under the Liberian flag in the Red Sea, inflicting damage to the ship but no reported casualties.

The US statement came hours after Houthi military spokesman Yahya Sarea claimed in a televised statement that the militia’s naval, drone and missile forces launched a joint attack against MT Bentley I in the Red Sea, and struck the Chios Lion oil tanker ship with a drone boat.

The two ships were targeted because their owners defied the militia’s warnings against traveling to Israeli ports.

Sarea said that a third operation was carried out with the assistance of the Iraqi Islamic Resistance, targeting the Olvia ship in the Mediterranean.

Olvia was recognized by ship monitoring apps as a crude oil tanker flying the Cyprus flag when it left the Israeli port of Haifa on Saturday.

Since November, the Houthis have fired hundreds of ballistic missiles, drones and drone boats at more than 100 ships on international trade routes near Yemen, forcing major commercial firms to divert ships away from the Red Sea and on to longer and more costly routes via Africa.

The Houthis maintain that they solely strike Israeli-linked and Israeli-bound ships to put pressure on Israel to lift its blockade of Gaza. Critics say that the Houthis are using Yemenis’ fury over Israel’s war in Gaza to silence vocal voices calling for salary payments and public service improvements, as well as to recruit fighters.

On Tuesday, Houthi militia leader Abdul Malik Al-Houthi promised to keep striking ships until Israel stops its war in Gaza.

“Our missile and naval operations will continue and expand until the aggression ends and the Israeli embargo on Gaza is removed,” he said.

Meanwhile, Yemen’s internationally recognized government reiterated on Tuesday its request for international groups to shift their offices from Houthi-held Sanaa to the southern city of Aden, Yemen’s temporary capital.

Rashad Al-Alimi, chairman of the Presidential Leadership Council, demanded during a meeting with US Ambassador to Yemen Steven Fagin that international donors fulfill their commitments to the humanitarian response plan in Yemen and that international organizations relocate their main offices to Aden after the Houthis kidnapped dozens of aid workers in Sanaa.

Yemeni Minister of Interior Ibrahim Haidan reiterated the same request during a meeting with Mahmoud Salah, head of the Foreign Committee of the Red Cross mission in Aden on Tuesday.


Israeli military to begin drafting ultra-Orthodox seminary students next week

Updated 16 July 2024
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Israeli military to begin drafting ultra-Orthodox seminary students next week

  • In June, Israel’s Supreme Court mandated the government to begin drafting ultra-Orthodox Jewish seminary students

JERUSALEM: The Israeli military will next week begin issuing military draft summons to ultra-Orthodox seminary students who were previously exempt from military service, the military said on Tuesday.
The issue is especially sensitive amid the war against Hamas in Gaza and related fighting on other fronts that have caused the worst Israeli casualties — mostly among secular draftees and reservists — in decades.
In June, Israel’s Supreme Court mandated the government to begin drafting ultra-Orthodox Jewish seminary students into the military, creating new political strains for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
An Israeli military statement said that starting next Sunday “the process of issuing initial summons orders for the first call-up” ahead of the upcoming July recruitment cycle would commence.
Netanyahu’s coalition includes two ultra-Orthodox parties that regard the exemptions as key to keeping their constituents in religious seminaries and away from a melting-pot military that might test their conservative values.
The issue has prompted protests by ultra-Orthodox Jews, who make up 13 percent of Israel’s 10 million population — a figure expected to reach 19 percent by 2035. Their refusal to serve in wars they generally support is a long festering schism in Israeli society.
Israel’s 21 percent Arab minority is also largely exempted from the draft, under which men and women are generally called up at the age of 18, with men serving 32 months and women 24 months.


US-supplied bombs used in Israeli strike of Gaza ‘safe zone’ — weapons experts

Updated 16 July 2024
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US-supplied bombs used in Israeli strike of Gaza ‘safe zone’ — weapons experts

  • A sliver of munition seen in a video of the blast site circulating online was a tail fin from a US-made Joint Direct Attack Munition
  • Former US Army explosive ordnance disposal technician: ‘it’s 100 percent a JDAM kit’ made in the United States

JERUSALEM: Israel’s deadly strike on Al-Mawasi, one of the bloodiest attacks in more than nine months of war in Gaza, used massive payload bombs provided by the United States, according to weapons experts.
The bombing of the Israeli-declared “safe zone” transformed the tent city on the Mediterranean coast into a charred wasteland, with nearby hospitals overrun with casualties.
According to the health ministry in the Hamas-run territory, the barrage killed at least 92 people and wounded more than 300.
The Israeli military said it targeted two “masterminds” of the October 7 attacks by Hamas that triggered the war. It said a top commander, Rafa Salama, was killed in the strike, but uncertainty remains over Hamas military chief Mohammed Deif.
AFP videos of the attack showed a white mushroom cloud billowing over a busy street, leaving behind a huge crater strewn with the wreckage of tents and a building blown to bits.
Here is what we know about the weaponry used in the attack:
Two weapons experts said that a sliver of munition seen in a video of the blast site circulating online was a tail fin from a US-made Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM). AFP could not independently verify the video.
The GPS-aided kit converts unguided free-fall bombs — so-called “dumb bombs” — into precision-guided “smart” munitions that can be directed toward single or multiple targets.
The United States developed the kit to improve accuracy in adverse weather after Operation Desert Storm in 1991.
The first JDAMs were delivered in 1997 and, according to the US Air Force, have a 95 percent system reliability.
Trevor Ball, a former US Army explosive ordnance disposal technician, concluded from images of the Al-Mawasi strike “it’s 100 percent a JDAM kit” made in the United States.
He said that given the types of bombs compatible with the guidance system and the size of the fin fragment, the JDAM was most likely used with either a 1,000 or 2,000 pound (450 or 900 kilogram) payload.
He said the fragment could also be compatible with the BLU-109 “bunker buster” warhead, which is designed to penetrate concrete.
Ball said it was not possible to definitively determine where the payload itself was made without “very specific fragments of the bomb body.”
Repeated use of such large bombs in the densely populated Gaza Strip has sparked humanitarian outcry and heaped pressure on US President Joe Biden to reconsider the munitions supplied to Israel.
On July 12, Israel’s main military backer announced it was ending a pause on supplying 500-pound bombs, though Biden said the 2,000-pound type would be withheld.
The White House has repeatedly voiced frustration over the civilian death toll in Gaza as Israel attempts to eradicate Hamas.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told two top Israeli officials on Monday that the civilian toll was “unacceptably high,” his spokesman said.
Israeli officials said their “precise strike” in Al-Mawasi hit an open area that housed a Hamas compound and not a civilian camp.
When contacted by AFP regarding the weapons used, the Israeli military declined to comment.
Based on Israel’s stated target, Wes Bryant, a retired US Air Force master sergeant and strike and joint targeting expert, said it would have been feasible to avoid collateral damage in the surrounding area.
“My assessment is that any civilians killed in this strike were in the compound — not in the surrounding vicinity. So the IDF either failed to assess presence of civilians, or... deemed the risk to civilians proportional to the military advantage of taking out the Hamas leaders.”
The strike left Al-Mawasi a scene of “absolute destruction” with no water, electricity or sewage treatment, the Islamic Relief charity said.
It condemned Israel for its willingness “to kill innocent men, women and children in pursuit of its end goals.”
Hamas said that by arming Israel, the Biden administration is “legally and morally responsible” for spawning a “major humanitarian catastrophe.”
It said US-supplied weapons used by Israel included GPS-guided bombs, dumb bombs, bunker busters and JDAMs.
After repeated high-casualty strikes in recent days, a Hamas official said the group was withdrawing from indirect talks for a truce and hostage release deal with Israel.
The war was sparked by Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel, which resulted in the deaths of 1,195 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli figures.
Israel responded with a military offensive that has killed at least 38,664 people in Gaza, also mostly civilians, according to the Hamas-ruled territory’s health ministry.