Masoud Pezeshkian, center, flashes a victory sign after casting his vote as he is accompanied by former Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, left, at a polling station in Shahr-e-Qods near Tehran, Iran, on Friday.
CNN  — 

Reformist candidate Masoud Pezeshkian has won Iran’s presidential election, the country’s electoral authority said Saturday, defeating his hardline rival in a pivotal vote amid heightened tensions both domestically and internationally.

Out of 30.5 million votes counted in Friday’s runoff, Pezeshkian won 53.6%, edging out ultraconservative Saeed Jalili, who had 44.3% of the votes, according to state-run Press TV. Voter turnout was 49.8%, Press TV reported.

Pezeshkian was elected in a second round of voting after securing the highest number of ballots in the first round, ahead of Jalili. The first round saw the lowest voter turnout for a presidential election since the Islamic Republic was established in 1979.

“We will extend the hand of friendship to everyone; we are all people of this country and should utilize everyone’s efforts for the nation’s progress,” he said in his first remarks after the election win, according to Press TV. He thanked those who voted in Friday’s poll “with love and to help” the country.

The Guardian Council, a powerful 12-member body tasked with overseeing elections and legislation, must certify the vote before Pezeshkian can take office.

Pezeshkian will take the helm in a country that is facing increasing international isolation, internal discontent, a spiraling economy and the prospect of direct conflict with its archenemy Israel.

The snap election that brought him to power was held after President Ebrahim Raisi died in a helicopter crash in May in Iran’s remote northwest, along with Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian and other officials. The lawmaker was the only reformist candidate vying for the top elected seat in the country after dozens of other candidates were barred from running.

Following victory, Pezeshkian appealed for unity and support from fellow Iranians in a statement posted to X.

“Dear people of Iran, the elections are over and this is just the beginning of our support/work. The difficult path ahead of us will not be paved except with your support, empathy and trust. I extend my hand to you and swear by my dignity that I will not leave you alone on this path. Don’t leave me alone,” he wrote.

He has favored dialogue with Iran’s foes, particularly over its nuclear program, and sees that as a means to address the country’s domestic issues.

“The primary issue is the perspective: Do we want to solve our problems with the world or not? I believe we must get out of the deadlock to solve the country’s problems,” he said at a presidential debate ahead of the second round of voting.

While the president does enjoy some powers in Iran, the ultimate authority lies with the Supreme Leader, who has the final say on all matters of state.

In this 2002 file photo, then-Health Minister Masoud Pezeshkian, left, and then-Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, right, listen to Abbas-Ali Karimi, center, head of Tehran's Cardiology Center, as they visit an operating room during the center's inauguration.

Who is Masoud Pezeshkian?

A health minister under reformist president Mohammad Khatami, Pezeshkian is a trained heart surgeon and lawmaker. He gained prominence for his stance against the crackdown on the 2009 pro-democracy protests and violence perpetrated by the notorious morality police in 2022 in the wake of Mahsa Amini’s death. Amini died in the custody of the morality police after being detained for not adhering to the Islamic Republic’s strict dress code for women. Hundreds were killed and thousands arrested as the authorities sought to crush the protests, according to the United Nations.

During the 2022 protests, Pezeshkian said in an interview with Iran’s IRINN TV: “It is our fault. We want to implement religious faith through the use of force. This is scientifically impossible.”

“I bear part of the blame, the distinguished religious scholars and the mosques bear part of the blame, and the (Iranian) broadcasting authority bears part of the blame,” he said. “Everybody should step forward and be held accountable, rather than capture that girl, beat her up, and eventually deliver her body (to her family).”

He has presented himself as a candidate for all Iranians. “Among my supporters are both left and right, even those who do not pray,” he said at a recent presidential debate.

After losing his wife and one of his children in a 1994 car crash, he devoted much of his time to politics. Pezeshkian ran for president in the 2013 and 2021 elections, but failed to make headway.

The 69-year-old hails from an ethnically mixed family – his father is Azeri and his mother is Kurdish. Persian isn’t his mother tongue. That has burnished his image for Iran’s minorities but left him open to xenophobic attacks from some opponents.

Supporters hold posters of Iranian presidential candidate Masoud Pezeshkian during a campaign event in Tehran, Iran, on July 3.

Can he bring change to Iran?

Experts say a more moderate face in the presidency could facilitate dialogue between Iran and Western states. Domestically, Pezeshkian may also introduce some social changes, which he emphasized during his electoral campaign, though experts caution that such moves are far from guaranteed.

Sanam Vakil, director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at the Chatham House think tank in London, said it’s unlikely that Pezeshkian’s election would immediately translate into policy changes. “But Pezeshkian has made it clear that he will try to work through and within the system in order to perhaps accommodate a less repressive environment.”

The reformist did not guarantee that he could make those changes, Vakil said, adding that this shows the limits of presidential powers in Iran. “But (it may add) a bit more room for maneuver on social freedoms,” she said.

Other factors may be more difficult to change, particularly Iran’s foreign policy.

Pezeshkian assumes the presidency at a time when his country is embroiled in escalating tensions with Israel and its Western allies, triggered by the war in Gaza and the advancement of Iran’s nuclear program.

Just three months ago, Iran and Israel exchanged fire for the first time as the Gaza conflict widened. Israel is now preparing for a potential second front against Hezbollah, Iran’s primary regional proxy, in Lebanon.

Rhetoric between Iran and Israel escalated last week as Iran’s mission to the United Nations said that should Israel “embark on full-scale military aggression” against Lebanon, then “an obliterating war will ensue.”

“All options, including the full involvement of all Resistance Fronts, are on the table,” it said on X.

Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz responded that “a regime that threatens destruction deserves to be destroyed.”

Pezeshkian is not expected to change the current trajectory on Israel, experts said.

He has also praised General Qasem Soleimani, the controversial head of the Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force, who was assassinated in a US strike in 2020.

“I consider him a source of national pride and a thorn in the eyes of our enemies,” he said in a recent presidential debate.

Masoud Pezeshkian visits the Iran Chamber of Commerce, Industries, Mines, and Agriculture in Tehran, Iran on June 23.

A friendlier face to the West

But while Western states aren’t expecting this election to change their relationship with Iran, Pezeshkian is certainly their preferred candidate, as his opponent would have only escalated those existing tensions, experts said.

Former Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, a key ally of Pezeshkian and a reformist who oversaw a comparatively warm period of international relations nearly a decade ago, has been mooted as a potential candidate to reoccupy his old post under the new president.

Zarif was Iran’s top diplomat when the regime struck a deal with the US and world powers to limit Tehran’s nuclear activities in exchange for sanctions relief (a deal that has since all but collapsed). While he is popular among Iranian youth, he has also faced criticism from hardliners at home for being too friendly to the West.

Ahead of the elections, however, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei condemned those seeking improved relations with the West. And Pezeshkian has publicly stated that he would defer to Khamenei on matters of foreign policy, so Zarif’s appointment is far from assured.

CNN’s Joseph Ataman, Isaac Yee, Lucas Lilieholm and Abbas Al Lawati contributed to this report.