Iran goes to the polls as reformer seeks to liberalize country

Rouhani was a key architect of the 2015 nuclear deal with the US, the EU and other partners. The election is being seen, at least in part, as a referendum on that agreement, which has so far yielded mixed economic results for Iranians.

His closest opponent is conservative cleric Ebrahim Raisi, who has cast doubt on the benefits of the nuclear deal.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was among the first to cast his ballot and urged others to do the same. “I believe that the presidential election is very important. The fate of the country is in the hands of people,” he said.

Raisi is widely seen as Khamenei’s preferred candidate — indeed, he is often mentioned as his possible successor.

Rouhani, meanwhile, is essentially running for reelection as an outsider, and is being backed by Iran’s reformist camp.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani casts his vote in the 2017 election.

For many in Iran, especially in affluent areas of the capital, Tehran, he has provided a glimpse of what many have long desired — engagement with the outside world, without the types of banking and visa restrictions, as well as economic sanctions — that left them feeling so isolated.

Supporters recognize that Rouhani isn’t perfect — he too, after all, is also a cleric. But he’s widely seen by reformers as their best hope for change.

Iranians queue to cast their ballots in presidential elections in Tehran on May 19, 2017.

Conservative frontrunner

Should Raisi win, Iran is expected to retreat from the kind of nascent international engagement seen during Rouhani’s first term.

Raisi’s history may deter some voters — the 56-year-old cleric was a member of the so-called “Death Commission,” which presided over the summary executions of thousands of political prisoners in the summer of 1988.

But Rouhani won’t necessarily benefit.

Ahmad Majidyar, who leads the IranObserved Project at the Middle East Institute, agrees that “many reformists are dismayed by the President’s unwillingness to stand up to the country’s judiciary and security establishment,” meaning many may simply not bother to vote at all.

In a tight contest, a traditionally high turnout among conservatives could be enough to give Raisi victory.

However, Rouhani has history on his side: no sitting President has failed to win a second term since 1981.

Official results, announced by Iran’s Ministry of Interior, are not expected until later this weekend. If no one candidate achieves an absolute majority — over 50% of the vote — a runoff will take place on May 26.


The nuclear deal is top of the agenda, with much of Rouhani’s candidacy based on one question — has the landmark agreement made life better for ordinary Iranians?

The president has had a tough time defending the trademark achievement of his presidency and his opponents have accused him of not making good on his promises. Iran’s presidential debates have largely centered on the nuclear deal.

He billed the nuclear deal as one that would thrust open the gates of economic opportunity, bring the country out of its isolation and create millions of jobs for Iranians.

The agreement has brought a string of billion dollar deals with Western firms for airplanes and oil exploration in Iran.

But the benefits were largely stymied by a fall in global oil prices and US President Donald Trump’s election, which introduced uncertainty for investors — Trump has repeatedly threatened to rip up the deal. For the average Iranian, the results have been lackluster, and Raisi has jumped upon this, accusing Rouhani of sacrificing Iran’s sovereignty for a fool’s bargain.

Unemployment remains high — although it fell from 15.5% to 10.7% during Rouhani’s first term — and growth middling.

Rouhani stated the choice facing Iranians simply: “Our nation will announce if it continues on the path of peacefulness, or if it wants to choose tension.”

Vibrant scenes

In Iran, where political speech is severely curtailed, newspapers and even social media channels are government regulated and protest comes with great personal risk, the quadrennial presidential election is an opportunity to blow off emotional steam, to act politically in the most public, and loud, of ways.

At a campaign rally last week at the Azadi stadium in Tehran, Rouhani took to the stage and delivered a speech more worthy of an outsider than the incumbent President of Iran.

Standing behind a lectern and surveying the sea of purple — his campaign color — before him, Rouhani promised much.

“We want freedom of the press,” he declared. “Freedom of association, and freedom of thought!”

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