Friday’s presidential election in Iran marks a pivotal moment for the Islamic Republic. Although ultimate power in the country remains in the hands of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the results will indicate the direction of Iranian foreign and domestic policy, as well as how Tehran plans to engage with the West, for the foreseeable future.
The electoral contest pits incumbent Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, considered a “moderate” by many observers, against hardline rival Ebrahim Raisi, who has served in top positions in the country’s judiciary system for years. Rouhani was elected in a landslide victory in 2013, and is vying for a second term in office, but in the current race, Raisi has managed to consolidate conservative support; recent polls indicate that daylight between the two candidates is extremely narrow. Although the ballot will list other fringe candidates, including Mostafa Hashemitaba, a former Iranian Vice President, and Mostafa Mirsalim, a former Minster of Culture and Islamic Guidance, the election has essentially turned into a two-man event. If neither Rouhani or Raisi win more than 50 percent of the votes, a run-off will take place one week later.
Rouhani and Raisi could not represent more divergent camps. During his time as President, Rouhani, along with his Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, worked to bring Iran back into the international fold, particularly during the negotiations leading up to the landmark nuclear deal struck between Iran and the P5+1 in July 2015.
Raisi, on the other hand, is viewed as a product of Iran’s dark and secretive system, having served as one of four sharia judges who imposed death penalties on political prisoners during the 1980s. Last year, Raisi was appointed the head of Astan Qods Razavi, a billion-dollar religious foundation that manages the country’s holiest shrine in the northern city of Mashhad. Experts have even touted Raisi as a potential successor to Khamenei as Supreme Leader.
“Raisi is a mini-me of the Supreme Leader,” said Karim Sadjadpour, Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, at a Brookings Institution event earlier this week. “His talking points are nearly identical to those of the Supreme Leader.”
The importance of receiving Khamenei’s support is critical, particularly as exchanges between the two candidates have grown increasingly heated in recent weeks.
During one presidential debate, Rouhani said, “Mr. Raisi, you can slander me as much you wish. As a judge of the clerical court, you can even issue an arrest order. But please don’t abuse religion for power.” Rouhani also added that security and revolutionary groups were busing people to Raisi’s rallies and should refrain from meddling in politics.
Earlier this week, Khamenei appeared to take a shot at Rouhani and his positions, stating before an audience that “in the election debates, some remarks were made that were unworthy of the Iranian nation. But the (wide) participation of the people will erase all of that.”
According to Suzanne Maloney, Deputy Director of the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institution and a leading expert on Iran, the upcoming election presents a “stark choice for Iranians and a stark choice for the system as to what outcome it favors.”
“What we are going to see over the course of the next few days is a clear indication of how Iran intends to engage with the world – whether the strategic option of a friendly, smiling duo of Rouhani and Zarif engaging with the world and trying to head off pressure from the Trump Administration is the preferred strategy, or whether in fact, Iran is truly sinking inward, regressing to a much more repressive time,” Maloney explained during the Brookings event.
“If Raisi is elected, we have not only the prospect of greater traction for the Trump Administration’s efforts to put pressure on Iran, but we have the open question about how Iranians react if the outcome is perceived by Iranians as illegitimate,” said Maloney.
One key issue at stake in the current election is continuity of the Iranian nuclear agreement, also known as the JCPOA. On Wednesday, U.S. President Donald Trump extended substantial sanctions relief for Iran called for under the nuclear accord, although he did impose a new set of sanctions on Iranian and Chinese entities for supporting Iran’s ballistic missile program. But if Raisi emerges victorious, Sadjadpour fears that the nuclear deal could “be orphaned” as neither Trump nor Raisi had a direct role in its formation.
Another important factor is Iran’s current economic predicament. Despite promises by Rouhani that the economy would take a turn for the better following sanctions relief under the nuclear deal, Iran still faces dire economic circumstances, and the population believes Rouhani has failed to deliver on his promise. Meanwhile, Raisi has campaigned in small and rural villages around the country, promising to create six million jobs in his first presidential term and increase cash handouts to the lower class.
Ultimately, while the Iranian elections have generated anticipation and climbed news headlines, Tehran continues to boast an authoritarian regime that has the final say in any electoral outcome.
“Iranian elections have a propensity for creating maximum drama and minimum change,” said Sadjadpour. “Authoritarian regimes don’t have democratic elections and this one is rigged.”
Yet the world will continue to watch and monitor how the Iranian election unfolds.
“Iranian elections have a way of being both unpredictable and surprisingly exciting, despite the fact that this is not a fully unfettered or anything close to a free and fair competition,” said Maloney. “Nonetheless, elections matter in Iran – they matter both for the regime in terms of policy changes but also mobilizing opportunities for the population.”
“Iranians value political voice,” concluded Maloney. “They don’t have an opportunity to make any kind of realistic impact on the selection of the Supreme Leader in most cases, but actually in this election, it offers them, at least de facto, the possibility of doing so.”
Bennett Seftel is deputy director of analysis at The Cipher Brief. Follow him on Twitter @BennettSeftel.