Iran election: why next president could steer country's future for a generation

Iranians will go to the polls on Friday with the economy, diplomacy and inequality on their minds. They may also be laying the groundwork for who succeeds Ayatollah Khamenei as supreme leader

As Tehran’s notorious traffic slowed, the waiting campaigners pounced, pushing posters with the smiling face of Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, through the open windows of trapped cars, pleading for votes and shouting slogans as drivers edged away.

They were determined to make every minute count in the last days of a campaign in which Rouhani began as favourite, but has ended locked in a bitter and close-run fight with a conservative rival.

The short-term stakes of Friday’s election are high: the future of 2015’s landmark nuclear deal and Iran’s cautious rapprochement with the west; the direction of its economy; control of its oilfields; and the freedom given to dissent.

In the long term, the election could decide an even more crucial political battle –that for Iran’s next supreme leader. The successor to ayatollahs Khomeini and Khamanei will be the most powerful person in Iran, and only the third person to lead the Islamic republic since its foundation.

Rouhani’s main opponent in Friday’s ballot is the conservative cleric Ebrahim Raisi. The 56-year-old, who spent most of his career as a lawyer and judicial official, was a relative unknown when he entered the race, and is considered uncharismatic by even his own supporters.

However, he has consolidated the support of hardliners worried that religious values are under assault, and stirred up populist anger about Iran’s feeble economy.

His slogans echo the anti-establishment sentiment that fuelled Donald Trump’s rise to the White House. With slender economic growth, more than one in four young people out of work, and cuts to government subsidies, many people feel abandoned or betrayed.

“We don’t want government by the 4%,” Raisi supporters shouted at his most recent Tehran rally, where thousands of devotees packed out a prayer hall and conference centre waving Iranian flags and red roses, his campaign symbol.

Raisi may cast his net wider than Trump in claiming a government “by the 4%”, but the anger of his supporters at the inequality in Iran would be familiar to those who covered the US president’s campaign, and is the driving force of his popularity. “Rouhani can’t provide equality between rich and poor,” said Hajar Pakyari, a biology professor at Islamic Azad University, who was at the Tehran rally with colleagues.

The nuclear deal that was Rouhani’s headline achievement is still popular across the Iranian political spectrum, but it failed to bring the immediate economic benefits that many expected, and that Rouhani’s team hoped would carry him to a second term.

That left an opening for Raisi to attack Rouhani’s subsequent engagement with the west, appealing to conservatives who remain uneasy about Iran’s efforts to court its old enemies.

“I personally believe and support ideas that trust the capabilities of the people inside Iran,” said Mohammed-Taghi Ansari-Pur, a professor at the University of Religions and Denominations in the city of Qom. “I believe that we can solve our problems inside Iran. I do not favour those who depend on outside countries.”

The economy, the fate of the nuclear deal, and questions of reform are significant enough issues to make this an intense election. But the fact that the next president could hold the key to the ultimate controller of Iran for a generation – the supreme leader – ratchets up the pressure.

“We are not voting for the next four years – we are voting for the next 40 years,” said one young Rouhani supporter.

While few in Iran are willing to openly discuss who might follow the incumbent, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is 78 years old and widely believed to have received treatment for prostate cancer. Raisi is one of a handful of names talked about as a potential successor.

When he entered the presidential campaign, many thought Raisi merely wanted to raise his public profile for that showdown, and would drop out in the final days to support a fellow conservative, a relatively common tactic in Iran.

Instead, other hardliners dropped out to support him. This raises the stakes for Raisi and his team, because a loss in this election would badly damage his hopes of becoming supreme leader.

Although democracy’s reach within Iran is limited by the supreme leader and a network of powerful bodies – such as the Guardian Council, which vets candidates for elections – popular legitimacy is still extremely important to the leadership.

“You can’t be the country’s supreme leader if you lose a presidential election,” said Foad Izadi, a professor in Tehran University’s world studies department. So the fact that Raisi is still in the race in the final days suggests he and his team believe he can win.

With so much riding on the campaign, it is no surprise that it has become particularly bitter, with Khamenei making a rare intervention on Wednesday to condemn the tone of the personal attacks.

Rouhani responded with bold criticism of Raisi and his backers, and appealed to moderates and reformers alike in an attempt to boost turnout. Polling puts him ahead, but short of the 50% needed to avoid a runoff.

His speeches have become more combative, moving from denouncing Raisi for his role in the executions of thousands of political prisoners in the 1980s to attacking powerful bodies like the Revolutionary Guard corps.

On Wednesday he told his hardline opponents they were not equipped to continue his diplomatic efforts. “You say you want to negotiate with the world, but you don’t know how to speak the global language. You don’t even know how to speak the language of your own people,” Rouhani said at a rally in the northern town of Ardebil.

His outspoken attacks on hardliners and parts of the Iranian state have won him the backing of key members of 2009’s Green movement, the reformist uprising after the contested presidential election win of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that was crushed by security forces.

Several leading figures from that campaign – including the former prime minister Mir-Hussein Mosavi and parliamentary speaker Mehdi Karroubi, who are both under house arrest – have endorsed Rouhani.

The Guardian