As Iran’s President-elect Masoud Pezeshkian steps into this critical role of leading the pivotal regional power, the world watches with bated breath, eager to see how he will chart a course for Iran’s future on the global stage — a trajectory that will have significant implications for its neighbours, particularly Pakistan.

Pezeshkian’s foreign policy priorities are clear, based on his campaign statements. His administration will focus on revitalising Iran’s economy through strategic international engagement especially the revival of the nuclear deal with the West called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and regional diplomacy.

He has highlighted the need for a pragmatic reassessment of Iran’s global relationships, prioritising both economic benefits and national security. This implies striking a balance between promoting economic growth and ensuring Iran’s security interests, marking a potential shift in the country’s foreign policy trajectory.

President-elect Masoud Pezeshkian will assume office amidst intense internal and external pressures. On the domestic front, Iran struggles to overcome crippling economic sanctions, which have fuelled high inflation and significantly eroded the standard of living for its citizens.

Meanwhile, the external landscape remains highly volatile, with the looming threat of direct conflict with Israel poised to shape Iran’s strategic calculus.

A significant limitation on Pezeshkian’s role is the structure of Iranian governance itself, where supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei holds ultimate authority over key aspects of foreign policy and national security. This places inherent constraints on the presidency’s influence over foreign policy decisions.

Iran’s supreme leader Khamenei position that relying on or appeasing Western powers, particularly the US, would not drive Iran’s progress underscores the significant domestic political hurdles Pezeshkian is set to face in advancing his reform agenda, with formidable opposition from conservative elements within Iran.

A cornerstone of Pezeshkian’s intended foreign policy is to enhance relations with neighbouring countries particularly the Arab nations. He has lauded the rapprochement initiative with Saudi Arabia undertaken by his predecessor, Ebrahim Raisi, viewing them as vital steps towards regional stability and economic collaboration. Pezeshkian plans to continue and deepen these diplomatic efforts, emphasising mutual benefits and security cooperation.

In terms of Iran’s involvement with the proxy network in Middle East known as the ‘Axis of Resistance’, Pezeshkian appears to advocate for a more cautious approach. While recognising the strategic importance of these alliances in Middle Eastern geopolitics, he suggests a focus on diplomacy and support for oppressed populations, aligning with Iran’s principles but potentially signalling a shift from more aggressive postures.

Central to his strategy is JCPOA’s revival. He regards the nuclear deal as essential for easing economic sanctions and re-establishing Iran’s credibility on the global stage. Pezeshkian supports the diplomatic groundwork laid during Hassan Rouhani’s presidency and is prepared to re-engage with the United States, even considering the complexities of a potential Trump administration return. He has in the past emphasised a pragmatic, results-oriented negotiation stance, focusing on economic imperatives over ideological divides.

His pragmatic approach underscores his belief that economic revitalization and securing national interests can be achieved through calculated diplomatic engagement rather than confrontation.

Pezeshkian’s perspective on China reveals a nuanced understanding of the challenges and opportunities within this bilateral relationship. Acknowledging China as a critical economic partner, particularly during periods of heightened Western sanctions, he has also expressed concerns about the unequal benefits this partnership has yielded. Pezeshkian, in one of the debates, criticised the way China has been able to exploit Iran’s international isolation for disproportionate advantage, often neglecting reciprocal commitments, as seen in delays and imbalances in trade and investment projects under the 25-year strategic accord between the two nations.

Iran’s foreign policy trajectory holds significant implications for Islamabad, as it directly influences Pakistan’s border security dynamics, economic cooperation prospects, and diplomatic relationships with both Iran and Arab countries.

The relationship between Pakistan and Iran has long been strained by border security concerns and mutual distrust. However, under President Pezeshkian’s leadership, Iran is expected to adopt a more diplomatic and economically focused approach towards Pakistan. According to Iran experts, Pezeshkian is likely to prioritise dialogue to resolve conflicts, shared interests in counter-terrorism and border security, and economic cooperation through initiatives such as enhanced trade and energy partnerships.

Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif while congratulating him on his election as Iran’s president, expressed hopes for stronger ties and enhanced regional stability.

In a statement on X, formerly Twitter, Sharif said, “Heartiest congratulations to my brother Dr Masoud Pezeshkian on his victory in Iran’s presidential elections! I look forward to working closely with President-elect Dr Pezeshkian to further strengthen Pakistan-Iran bilateral ties and promote regional peace and stability.”

The diplomatic relationship between Pakistan and Iran has been complex, with both cooperation and contention. The countries share interests in regional security and economic development but face challenges, including border security issues and alignment with different regional blocs.

Besides Iran’s political structure, Pezeshkian’s success will also depend on the international environment. The victory of a centrist and a moderate in Iran could be the first step, but that alone is not enough. The West, too, will have to make reconciliatory gestures to Tehran.

Published in Dawn, July 7th, 2024

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