Iranians turned out in higher numbers than in previous votes to elect a reformist president who ran on a platform of re-engaging with the West and loosening the country’s strict moral codes for women.

Liberal voters, confronted with a stark choice between a cautious reformer and a tough hard-liner , shook off some of the disillusionment that had led to very low turnout in the initial presidential vote a week ago and turned out to the polls for a runoff that put a reform candidate in office for the first time in two decades.

Little-known politician Masoud Pezeshkian, a 69-year-old surgeon, won with more than 53% of the vote, beating his hard-line rival Saeed Jalili , 58, according to official results announced by the Interior Ministry on state television. Turnout was 49.8%, up from 40% in the initial election and at the high end of speculation ahead of the vote.

Now Pezeshkian will have to operate in the treacherous theater of Iranian politics to manage a battered economy and an increasingly disaffected population that has erupted in protests repeatedly over the past decade. He has vowed to work to restore a 2015 pact that lifted international sanctions in exchange for curbs on Iran’s nuclear program , rein in the country’s hated morality police who force women to cover their hair, and stand against curbs on the internet.

A young woman leaving the polling station in a poor religious area on the outskirts of Tehran said she hadn’t voted last week but did so this time to keep the hard-line conservative Jalili from winning.

Another woman, a 45-year-old nurse in Tehran, said she hoped economic and social conditions would improve but really just wanted to keep the other side out.

“I am so happy now by the thought of how Jalili and his people are sad right now,” said the nurse, who skipped the first round of voting, seeing it as pointless. “I do not expect much by voting. The other group, they always sabotage things. It is just important that the other group did not get hold of the country’s steering wheel.”

Iranian reformist Masoud Pezeshkian was elected president with more than 53% of the vote.
Saeed Zareian/pool/WANA (West Asia News Agency) via REUTERS

It has been years since Iran allowed a reformist to run for president. The result is a sign of the pressure Iran’s theocratic rulers are under as the country tires of economic decay and strict moral codes.

Iran’s government approves all candidates, and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has the final say on policy. Amid the tight control, however, the government tolerates a degree of competitive presidential campaigning and voting in hopes of appearing responsive and keeping disgruntled citizens from dropping out of the system.

The announced turnout figures, while an improvement from the first round, showed the level of disaffection remains high.

Pezeshkian’s election also gives Iran’s leaders a way to soften their image even as they strengthen ties with Russia and China and build up their network of allied militias, posing the greatest threat to U.S. allies and interests in the Middle East since the Islamic Republic was founded in 1979.

His opponent had pledged to sharpen the conflict with those who imposed sanctions on Iran.

Born in the western city of Mahabad, Pezeshkian pitches himself as a unifying, empathetic figure who lost his wife and a child in a car accident. He has vowed to address grievances of a protest movement that rocked the country in 2022 following the death in custody of a young woman accused of violating the regime’s strict Islamic dress code.

Voting also took place abroad. Ehsan, a 26-year-old data scientist from Tehran who has been in London for six months, said he had voted for Pezeshkian because he found his frankness refreshing.

“He criticized the internet blockade live on TV,” he said. “It’s a leap.”

As he spoke, he was repeatedly interrupted by monarchist protesters who said his vote only legitimized the regime.

But Pezeshkian faces an uphill battle to make a difference in a system dominated by conservative institutions including the judiciary, the military and top officials all the way up to the supreme leader.

Saeed Jalili, the rival candidate votes during the run-off presidential election between him and Masoud Pezeshkian, in Tehran, Iran, July 5, 2024. Majid Asgaripour/WANA (West Asia News Agency) via REUTERS

As a health minister under reformist President Mohammad Khatami between 2001 and 2005, he saw firsthand how attempts to liberalize elections could be blocked by hard-liners. Pezeshkian’s ambition to ease rules on the veil and to revive the economy through a nuclear pact could face a veto from a conservative parliament.

Pezeshkian himself has carefully avoided crossing the regime’s red lines. He hasn’t called for an end to the compulsory veil and has turned up at rallies with his hijab-wearing daughter. During the campaign, he zealously pledged his loyalty to the political system, once donning the green uniform of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the military force tasked with defending the regime, and praising commander Qassem Soleimani , who was slain in a U.S. strike in 2020.

“His flexibility is a reason why Pezeshkian survived and stayed in the game when others were sidelined,” said Ali Vaez , an Iran-focused director at Brussels-based Crisis Group.

Pezeshkian’s opponent, Jalili, presented a starkly different approach to Iran’s difficulties. A hard-liner who lost a leg fighting with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in the 1980s war with Iraq, he advocated stricter penalties against women who don’t properly cover their hair, saying the rules play a central role to “preserve and strengthen the sanctity of the institution of family.”

Jalili had rejected calls to revive the 2015 pact that lifted international sanctions in exchange for curbs on Iran’s nuclear program before the U.S. pulled out of the deal in 2018. He vowed to bypass the restrictions and expand trade with Russia instead.

The new president succeeds conservative President Ebrahim Raisi , who died in a helicopter crash in May.

People queue to vote in the run-off presidential election between Masoud Pezeshkian and Saeed Jalili in Tehran, Iran, July 5, 2024. Majid Asgaripour/WANA (West Asia News Agency) via REUTERS

Write to Benoit Faucon at