About 55 million Iranians will be voting this Friday in Iran’s first presidential election since the landmark nuclear agreement was signed in 2015.
The differences between the four remaining candidates are not chasmic, since all had to be approved by the ruling body of Iran, the Guardian Council, which is headed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Effectively however the race has come down to two men: incumbent president Hassan Rohani, 68, and religious hardline jurist Ebrahim Raisi, 56, whose candidacy is raising more than one eyebrow in the west.
Both have agreed to keep the nuclear deal with the West in place, though while Rohani advocates opening Iran to the global economy now that sanctions have been lifted, Raisi is pushing a self-sufficient, “Iran first” populist ideology.
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Reform-minded Rohani is tipped to beat his three rivals, who will split the religious, conservative vote. But he has been slipping in polls and may not clinch the 50 percent threshold needed to avoid a runoff, which would significantly improve Raisi’s prospects.
The fundamentalist who judges other fundamentalists
A former protegee of Khamenei, Raisi wears a black turban, which in Shi’a tradition, signifies that he is a direct descendant of the Prophet Mohammed. He heads the Imam Reza Shrine, a religious foundation with reported assets of $14 million.
His campaign has gained traction through his fiery populist rhetoric. He has vowed to create 1.5 million more jobs a year and to triple cash handouts to the religious poor - though Iran is extremely strapped for cash.
From August 2014 to March 2016, Raisi was Iran’s Attorney General and he still heads the court that prosecutes troublemaking clerics. His wife, Jamileh Alamolhodam, is a professor at Shahid Beheshti University and the daughter of a hardline ayatollah from the eastern province of Khorasan-Razavi, home to the Imam Reza shrine.
In 1988, Raisi allegedly helped run Iran's so-called "death commission," a council that ordered the execution of thousands of political prisoners. His meteoric rise to prominence during the race has apparently alarmed not only human rights activists. During the last presidential debate, Rohani lashed out at Raisi, saying, “Your most prominent talent is executing people and imprisoning citizens.”
"A man who should be on trial for the most heinous crime in contemporary Iranian history is instead seeking the presidency," Hadi Ghaemi, the executive director of the U.S.-based Center for Human Rights in Iran, stated.
However, Raisi has the support of Iran's hugely influential and autonomous Islamic Revolutionary Guard. Some think his presidential bid is a test run to succeed the Supreme Leader, come the day: Khameini, 77, has been reported to be in bad health.
If he’s ill, it hasn’t silenced him. Khamenei has spoken out, warning of possible election fraud and also denouncing the campaign's rhetoric as "unworthy,” which Reuters interpreted as “a thinly-veiled rebuke of President Hassan Rohani's attacks on his main conservative challenger.”
Rohani did manage to bring down Iranian inflation from 45 percent in 2013 to 11 percent now and to spur economic growth, boosting GDP growth, which the World Bank predicts will reach a healthy 5.2 percent in 2017.
These are undeniable achievements, but Rohani’s critics complain the nuclear deal did nothing to improve living standards of ordinary Iranians and Raisi is preying on the economic insecurities of everyday Iranians. General unemployment is a high 11 percent and is thought to be far higher among young adults under 25, a dangerous situation for an incumbent running against a populist.