Iran has elected a former heart surgeon as its next president. Scientists expect Masoud Pezeshkian, who ran the nation’s health ministry in an earlier administration, to revive universities and reconnect the country’s isolated scientists with their international counterparts. His term could also usher in improvements to human rights, investment in science, greater academic freedom and the revival of talks on the country’s nuclear programme. But not everyone agrees that change will come or be lasting.

“He is a son of the higher-education system of Iran [and] likely to be a good advocate of science,” says Moneef Zou’bi, former director-general of the Islamic World Academy of Sciences, based in Amman. “His mere presence there will be quite inspirational for university presidents and top researchers,” adds Zou’bi, who studies Middle East science policy.

Others, however, note that lasting reform in Iran will be hard to achieve in the present geopolitical climate and while Iran remains a theocracy headed by a clerical supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, who wields both religious and political authority. The government also appoints university leaders and vets professors.

The presidential elections took place over two rounds, after Iran’s former president, Ebrahim Raisi, died in a helicopter crash in May. The early elections came two years after students and academics at the country’s universities were part of nationwide protests by the Woman, Life, Freedom movement. The demonstrations were sparked by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in police custody, who had been arrested for allegedly violating Iran’s compulsory headscarf laws.

Pezeshkian won in the second round of voting on 5 July on a platform to kick-start the country’s ailing economy and take a softer line on students and academics involved in political dissent. He also says he wants Iran to enter new negotiations with the international community, in hopes of relieving sanctions against the country and restarting talks on its nuclear programme.

International sanctions have contributed to dire economic conditions and a cost-of-living crisis, says Hossein Akhani, a systematic-botany researcher at the University of Tehran. The country has systemic inflation, which peaked at more than 45% earlier this year but is now starting to fall. “The elections bring hope to the [scientific] community. This is a first step towards a change,” he says.

Pezeshkian trained as a heart surgeon and worked as a battlefield medic before becoming president of Tabriz University of Medical Sciences in 1994. Between 2001 and 2005, he ran the country’s health ministry under a previous reformist administration, that of president Mohammad Khatami.

Ali Gorji, a neuroscientist at the University of Münster in Germany, who is originally from Iran, is hopeful about his election win. “Given his background, he may potentially spur initiatives aimed at increasing scientific funding, upgrading research infrastructure, and fostering international collaborations in scientific disciplines.”

‘Protest is the right of students’

At an elections hustings event at Tehran University on 27 June, Pezeshkian emphasized that headscarves should not be imposed by force, and he acknowledged that students and academics should have the right to protest without facing violent repression.

“We make women and girls hate our beliefs, and this is a disaster,” he is quoted as saying in a report from the event, published by the Islamic Republic News Agency, based in Tehran. “Protest is the right of students and employees. Protest is the university’s right. A society that does not protest is dead,” he added.

“I will change the disciplinary regulations and the way of dealing with students and professors. Someone who is a scientist should not be [mistreated] because of his thinking.”

But cosmologist Encieh Erfani, who left her position in Iran in 2022 in protest of state violence against students, is not optimistic. “The total power is in the hand of the dictator [a reference to Khamenei]. I hope the West does not make the mistake of believing in reforms in Iran. No dictator can be reformed,” she says.

Sanctions dilemma

Pezeshkian has also vowed to restart talks on Iran’s nuclear programme. It is a key factor in the international sanctions imposed by Western countries, which Pezeshkian wants to see lifted.

“No government in history has been able to achieve growth and prosperity within a cage,” he said in a 2 July televised debate against his opponent Saeed Jalili. “We cannot think about development in this country and not have a logical relationship with the world. We cannot show claws and teeth to others. We must interact, and tolerate the world.

He campaigned alongside Iran’s former foreign minister and academic Javad Zarif, an architect of the nuclear deal brokered in 2015 with John Kerry, who was then the US secretary of state. Sanctions on Iran were eased in exchange for a verifiable commitment to drastically reduce its stockpile of weapons-grade uranium. The deal collapsed in 2018, when former US president Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from the agreement, and sanctions were reimposed.

Under the sanctions, international research collaborations are difficult. The country’s researchers face barriers in purchasing some types of equipment, applying for grants and even travelling to conferences. “The process for attending a foreign conference is very hard, and foreign scientists do not accept invitations to attend our conferences,” says Hamid Gourabi, a geneticist at the Royan Institute in Tehran, who hopes for sanctions relief, a widespread desire among Iranian scientists.

But a resuscitation of the agreement will not be easy, says Matthew Bunn, who studies nuclear security and is based at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “With the distrust and hostility on all sides, it will be extremely difficult to convince Iran to take down all the nuclear infrastructure it has built up since president Trump’s disastrous pull-out from the deal. A nuclear deal without any broader progress on Iran’s conflicts with the United States, Israel and the Arab states is not politically sustainable.”