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Iranian voters chose Masoud Pezeshkian, a reformist as their new president

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Iran has elected a new president. Voters had a choice in a runoff election between a conservative candidate and a reformist. I better explain this. The conservative in Iranian terms would be someone who supported the restrictive policies of the clerics who hold ultimate power in Iran. The reformist favored more openness in society and a little bit more openness to the world. Masoud Pezeshkian is his name in an election, and he's the winner of the election that followed the past president's death. Vali Nasr is following all of this. He's a professor of Middle East studies and international affairs at Johns Hopkins University. Welcome back, Vali.

VALI NASR: Thank you.

INSKEEP: What, if anything, does the winner want to change about Iran?

NASR: Well, he promised, first of all, that he's going to improve the livelihoods of the Iranians, the economy, by getting the United States to lift sanctions, which means that he promised that he would engage the United States, reduce tensions and ease pressure on Iran's economy. And secondly, he promised that he would relax social restrictions, particularly the forcible imposition of hijab on women.

INSKEEP: Wow. So those are two big items. Let's talk about the first one. If he's going to get the United States to lift sanctions, I'm thinking he's going to have to get Iran to somehow restrict its nuclear program. Can he even do that?

NASR: Yes, I mean, he's touted his government to be really the third term of President Rouhani's government - that's the president who negotiated the nuclear deal. So that means that he's serious about negotiations with the United States, the outcome of which hopefully will be some kind of a deal that would lift sanctions. But he's starting from not saying no to the United States, and no to negotiations to saying, yes, we're going to take it seriously, and we want to do it.

INSKEEP: This is the thing that I'm thinking about. As you know far better than I, there are multiple centers of power in Iran. Clerics who are not elected hold ultimate power and have a lot of power over national security. Do you have any impression that this elected president who doesn't have ultimate power would be able to deliver on some nuclear deal restricting or ending or stopping or whatever the nuclear program?

NASR: Well, it is not he who would have to deliver that. It's the process of diplomacy that has to deliver that. That's the way it happened last time. I mean, you need to have a president and a foreign minister that is both capable and willing to move the ball forward. And then the powers that be at the top in Iran will react to the deal that's on the table. So I think Pezeshkian is not promising that he's going to pull a rabbit out of the hat tomorrow. What he's promising is a serious process, which is what I think Europe and the United States would be interested in, because it's the process that will produce an end to Iran's nuclear threat, not just his election.

INSKEEP: And do you think Iran's supreme leader would at least consider this deal, given the current situation Iran is in?

NASR: Well, he did permit the previous president to engage the United States in negotiations in Vienna, and they came very close to a deal. That means that the supreme leader is interested in a deal. It's not a surrender deal, but he's interested in a deal in which Iran will give up certain things and in return get certain degree of sanctions relief.

INSKEEP: OK.

NASR: And Pezeshkian is working on that exact angle.

INSKEEP: Let me talk about the other thing now. You said that he wants more freedom for women who protested over restrictions on covering their hair, rules for modest dress. What can he really change there?

NASR: Well, the laws are passed by the Parliament, so that's not in his hands. It's a separate body in Iran, but it is up to the government to actually implement the laws, and how it implements them is pretty important. It was his predecessor Raisi's decision to unleash the morality police in a forceful way on women, which caused the death of the young women. And therefore, Pezeshkian has capability to roll that back, and he has said that he would do so.

INSKEEP: So this is something that could change about Iranian society quite quickly.

NASR: Yes. In other words, women are not happy with the situation in Iran. Many of them did not vote, but they hope that they don't have to look over their shoulders the way they had to do when Raisi was president.

INSKEEP: Vali, thanks so much. It's always a pleasure talking to you.

NASR: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Vali Nasr is a professor of Middle East studies at Johns Hopkins University. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.