What's at Stake in Iran's Presidential Election: QuickTake Q&A

Where the Candidates Stand in Iran's Election

Iran’s May 19 election is seen as a referendum on the policies of President Hassan Rouhani, the moderate cleric who accepted limits on his nation’s nuclear work in exchange for relief from international sanctions. In seeking re-election, Rouhani, 68, has faced criticism from conservatives and from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that he’s failed to deliver on promises that the nuclear deal would bring prosperity. He got a break when his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was ruled ineligible to join the race. But then one of his top challengers dropped out to support the other, posing a serious threat from the right. At stake in the election is whether Iran will continue integrating with the rest of the world or backtrack toward isolation.

1. Who poses a challenge to Rouhani?

Cleric Ebrahim Raisi became the front-runner to unseat Rouhani after Tehran Mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf withdrew from the race, four days before voting, to prevent splitting conservative votes. Raisi, 56, wears a black turban, signifying he’s a direct descendent of the Prophet Muhammed. He’s held a number of judicial roles, including attorney general, and was appointed last year by Khamenei to manage the Astan Quds Razavi, a wealthy Islamic charitable foundation that controls the country’s holiest shrine in the northeastern city of Mashhad. The appointment signaled the supreme leader’s confidence in Raisi, who has been mentioned by Iranian media as a possible successor to the 77-year-old Khamenei. In the campaign, Raisi has stressed his experience as the head of the charitable foundation as evidence of his care for the poor, his understanding of their woes and his managerial skills.

2. What’s the main election issue?

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini famously said that Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution, which he led, was over justice and independence from foreign powers, not “the price of watermelons.” Almost four decades later, the most common themes in the presidential race are the cost of living and the lack of jobs. (Unemployment in Iran is 12 percent, higher among women and young people.) In a January poll, 73 percent of Iranians said the nuclear deal hadn’t improved their living conditions.

3. What’s Rouhani’s economic record?

Under his presidency, inflation has fallen from a high of 40 percent to single digits, and the gross domestic product stopped shrinking and is estimated to have grown at a rate of more than 6 percent in the fiscal year that ended in March. However, almost all the growth has been in the oil industry, with little of the benefits filtering down to ordinary Iranians. Rouhani tells Iranians that will take time. He’s courted foreign investors, with some success, though less than his government had hoped.

4. What does Raisi say?

He’s argued that Rouhani has failed to meet his pledge to improve the livelihood of Iranians through the 2015 nuclear deal. He’s promised to create more jobs, without saying exactly how, and to increase cash subsidies for the poor. Raisi isn’t opposed to foreign investment, but conservatives generally tend to favor an economic model focused on self-sufficiency.

5. Where does Raisi stand on the nuclear deal?

He’s made a point of referring to it as an agreement endorsed by the establishment that needs to be respected by the next government. That was no surprise, given that Khamenei, who has the final say on affairs of the state, approved the deal. Still, Raisi has said the accord has many “flaws” and that in negotiating it, Rouhani portrayed Iran in a weak light.

6. Why couldn’t Ahmadinejad run again?

Ahmadinejad, who served as president from 2005 to 2013, surprised Iranians when he registered to be a candidate even though Khamenei publicly requested that he stay out, to avoid polarizing the nation. In the end, Ahmadinejad was barred from running by Iran’s Guardian Council, which acts as an election watchdog and vets candidates for office. Ahmadinejad once had Khamenei’s backing, but during his second term, he became alienated from the traditional conservative camp and had a falling out with the supreme leader. He maintains some support in rural areas, and his disqualification from the race was momentarily considered a boon for Rouhani.

7. What powers does Iran’s president have?

The president heads the executive branch but is subservient to the supreme leader. A number of government entities are outside the president’s purview. Those include the state broadcaster, whose head is appointed by the supreme leader, and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps., which answers directly to him. The Guard is an elite security force that has an economic wing with interests in Iran’s economy including in telecommunications, infrastructure and energy.

8. What happens on May 19?

Voters choose from among the remaining presidential candidates, who numbered five after Qalibaf dropped out. If no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote, a runoff is scheduled for May 26. It’s difficult to forecast results because there are no reliable polls in Iran, where freedom of expression is limited.

9. Have Iran’s elections been considered free and fair?

Critics of Iran’s electoral system say candidates are more often vetted on the basis of the establishment’s interests than their actual qualifications. They point to the barring from the presidential race of Ahmadinejad this year, of former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani in 2013, and of all female candidates. In 2009, Ahmadinejad’s re-election was tainted by allegations of vote rigging that provoked widescale protests.

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