Masoud Pezeshkian: the former heart surgeon who became president of Iran

The shock election of Masoud Pezeshkian as Iran’s new president is as much a testimony to his personality as to his politics.

A former heart surgeon and health minister, he came across in the many presidential TV debates as a man of great personal integrity and humility, desperate to bring the country together after it had been divided domestically and abroad.

In the end, it will only be his opponents’ fear of his continued popularity that will help Pezeshkian wield influence in the warren that is Iran’s notoriously multi-level and factional politics.

It is an uphill task since, although the turnout in the runoff was higher than in the first round, it is the second lowest in Iranian presidential campaigns, showing many Iranians remain sceptical about politicians.

Pezeshkian’s life has been marked by personal tragedy, which has shaped him.

His wife, who he met as a fellow medical student, and youngest son died in a crash 30 years ago after his car hit a rock returning from a family trip to Tabriz. She was a trained gynaecologist and her loss affected him deeply, bringing him to tears even now.

He never married again, bringing up his remaining three children largely alone, learning to cook and teach them. His daughter, Zahra, accompanied him, wearing the hijab and holding his hand, when he registered to stand for the presidency this time. She has a master’s degree in chemistry and is regarded as a political adviser.

He reportedly speaks many languages including, apart from Farsi, Azeri, as well as some Kurdish and Arabic. His father was Azeri and his mother Kurdish. During one TV discussion he broke into good English to quote Einstein’s famous saying: “The definition of ‘insanity’ is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

Pezeshkian sits alongside his daughter, Zahra, at a campaign rally last week. Photograph: Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images

Pezeshkian’s 2024 campaign was his second full attempt to run for the presidency.

He first entered politics in 2006 as MP for Tabriz, building his popular base over successive elections.

Although he has a sharp tongue when he lashes out against corruption and the merchants of sanctions, his overall demeanour is suited to the role of a cooperator, often saying he will defer to experts on how to solve the country’s economic problems. He often left some of the sharpest attacks on his “Taliban opponents” to be made by his supporters.

But he faces an uphill task uniting the country, since his conservative opponents deeply resented being described as the Taliban by the reformists and viewed him as an agent of the west and his supporters, people that had succumbed to the western internet filter breakers.

He will also have to decide whether or how to reconcile himself with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Pezeshkian was born in September 1954 in Mahabad, a city in West Azerbaijan province known for having a large population of Azeri and Kurdish ethnic minorities.

He repeatedly reflects on his Azeri heritage, even though Mahabad is a predominantly Kurdish city, although he stresses he sees Iran as a unitary state. He is an advocate of ethnic rights as a way of keeping the country united.

At the age of 19, during the era of the Shah, he served his conscription duty in Zabul – one of the most deprived cities in Sistan and Balochistan province, an experience that was said to be his political awakening.

He returned to his home town to start his medical training and served as a doctor and fighter during the Iran-Iraq war.

After the war, he specialised in cardiology and heart surgery at Tabriz University of Medical Sciences. In 1994, he rose to the level of the university’s chief administrator and then became an MP for Tabriz. It was there, he admits in a video circulated by his opponents, that he enforced the hijab, and threatened those who did not comply with being sent home.

He says his views have developed since then and he is on record as opposing the suppression of the 2019 oil price protests and the 2022 protests sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini in police custody.

He has said: “Girls and women are our own and not foreigners. We have no right to force girls and women regarding citizenship rights. We will not be able to cover women’s heads through coercion.”

The “morality police” are once again seeking to enforce the hijab, with varying degrees of success judging by the streets of Tehran, and, once inaugurated, Pezeshkian will face an early test to see if he can change the enforcement climate.

Despite efforts by his opponents to portray him as a continuation of the unpopular government of President Hassan Rouhani, he never served in the eight years of his administration, instead only acting as health minister between 2001 and 2005 under the government of Mohammad Khatami.

He ran for the presidency in 2013 and 2021 but in his second attempt he was blocked by the 12-strong guardian council that vets candidates, an exclusion for which he demanded an explanation.

The appointment of Javad Zarif as an adviser gave him an analytical framework in which to argue the link between the state of the economy and the need for better relations with the west, portraying his opponent, Saeed Jalili, as an advocate of a siege economy.

To achieve the target 6% growth he said: “We would need $200bn annually in investment, which is impossible under current conditions, therefore solving our international issues is crucial.”

The Guardian