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Iranian Christians Question Reformist Credentials of New President

Heart surgeon Masoud Pezeshkian takes the helm of the Islamic Republic, having campaigned for ethnic and religious minorities while pledging to reach out to the West.
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Iranian Christians Question Reformist Credentials of New President
Image: Majid Saeedi / Stringer / Getty
Newly-elected Iranian President Masoud Pezeshkian (center) speaks during a visit to a shrine.

The surprise election in Iran of the sole reformist candidate for president was met with an unsurprising reaction from the United States.

Heart surgeon Masoud Pezeshkian tallied 53 percent of the vote for a clear but narrow victory over hard-line former nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili in an electoral process the State Department labeled “not free or fair.”

It followed the May 19 death of the previous president in a helicopter crash.

With “no expectation [of] fundamental change,” the perspective from Washington echoed that of Javaid Rehman, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Iran. The Pakistani-British lawyer stated that a new president is unlikely to improve the Islamic Republic’s record.

Iranian Christian sources in the diaspora agree.

“The result highlights a superficial change in leadership,” said Robert Karami, an Iranian Church of England pastor outside London and a board member of Release International, a UK-based advocate for the persecuted church. “It does not matter who holds the presidential office as long as the Supreme Leader remains in power.”

Pezeshkian, age 69, was one of six candidates permitted to run by Iran’s 12-member Guardian Council, appointed by head of state Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Dozens of candidates were disqualified, including former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Analysts speculated the inclusion of Pezeshkian was intended to increase voter turnout—but if so, the strategy initially failed and may have backfired.

Only 40 percent of the electorate participated in the first round held on June 28, the lowest tally since the 1979 Iranian revolution. It resulted in the first runoff since 2005, leading to a hostile campaign in which leading figures claimed Jalili would rule Iran like the Taliban in Afghanistan. Voters partially responded, as election day on July 5 witnessed an increased turnout of 50 percent.

But not Mansour Borji, who boycotted the diaspora ballot stations in the UK.

“I participated in the election by not voting, joining the majority who said no to the Islamic Republic,” said the director of Iranian religious freedom advocacy organization Article18. “Nor could I bring myself to do so on the 30th anniversary of pastors killed by the regime.”

July 5 marked the anniversary of when the last of the three victims—two of whom were Assemblies of God leaders—was identified in 1994.

Borji said that many Iranian Christians likely breathed a “sigh of relief” that Jalili did not win. His campaign called for strict adherence to Islamic law amid continued confrontation with the West while deepening ties with Russia and China. But as Pezeshkian has acknowledged that foreign policy is in the hands of Khamenei, Borji saw “little difference” between the two candidates.

Both had pledged to improve the economy, which has been in a tailspin since 2018 when Donald Trump unilaterally pulled the US out of the nuclear deal that limited Iran’s uranium enrichment in exchange for relief from sanctions. At the time the accord was signed under then–US president Barack Obama, the US dollar equaled 32,000 Iranian rials; it now trades for more than 600,000 rials.

Pezeshkian, however, linked improving the economy to negotiations with the US over sanctions, and would unilaterally return Iran’s nuclear program to compliance with the terms of the original deal. His candidacy was endorsed by Mohammad Zarif, the diplomat who forged the nuclear deal with the US and is speculated to return to his post.

Other indicators led Western press to accept Pezeshkian’s “reformist” label. Born to an Azeri father and Kurdish mother, he is the first president in decades to hail from Iran’s west, a region considered more tolerant due to its many minority populations—which he promised to represent. He counted “those who do not pray” among his supporters. And he struck a unique figure as a single father campaigning with his daughter at his side, never remarrying after the death of his wife in a 1994 car accident.

Pezeshkian also said he would resist hijab enforcement and internet restrictions.

But Borji and Karami, the UK pastor, both cited Pezeshkian’s history as a guardian of Iranian patriarchy. As head of the medical team at the Tabriz hospital, he reduced the number of female students and staff. He also imposed the wearing of the hijab there before it was legally mandatory, and during his 14-year parliamentary tenure he supported the legislation to make it so.

Pezeshkian unsuccessfully ran for president in 2013 and 2021, and may have adjusted his beliefs—or at least his rhetoric. He criticized the 2022 crackdown on demonstrators that killed 500 people and detained 22,000 others following the death in custody of Mahsa Amini, who had violated the hijab law. He even stated it was “scientifically impossible” to implement religious faith through force.

But Karami said he also called the protests beneficial for the enemies of Iran.

“Pezeshkian projects an image of modernity and reform,” he said. “But most Iranians view his ascension as a strategic maneuver by the Supreme Leader to buy time and appease the West.”

Borji agreed, calling the election a “circus” to garner legitimacy for Iran.

“Pezeshkian may be a heart surgeon,” he said. “But he doesn’t have the power or strategy to win over the hearts of the majority.”

Heart change, however, is the necessary solution, said Nathan Rostampour.

“My only hope for Iran is Jesus Christ,” said the Persian ministry director for Summit Church in North Carolina and a trustee of the Southern Baptist Convention’s International Mission Board. “There are no real reformists in the system, anyway—they are all in prison.”

Rostampour said that Iran’s local church must focus on the Great Commission, emphasize discipleship, and become shining examples of the love of God through social service. Traditional reform is impossible, as the regime controls everything.

And it continues to persecute Christians. Last year, 166 followers of Christ were arrested, one-third of whom were involved in Bible distribution. And while Pezeshkian has made overtures to Iran’s ethnic and religious minorities, especially Sunni Muslims, will he—or can he—advance religious freedom for converts from Islam?

One survey finds Iranian Christians now number almost 1 million.

“While Pezeshkian’s win is ostensibly a victory for reform, it ultimately signifies little in the broader context of Iranian politics,” said Karami. “Until the power structure is fundamentally changed, the future for Christians remains bleak.”

July/August
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