Iran Moderates Rally Round Rouhani to Oppose Hardliners

  • President endorsed by grandson of republic’s founding cleric
  • Conservatives had united behind single candidate on Monday

Where the Candidates Stand in Iran's Election

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s re-election campaign received a lift as a fellow moderate withdrew from the race, and he was endorsed by the influential grandson of the founder of the Islamic Republic.

Eshagh Jahangiri, who from the outset had used his speeches to encourage support for a second Rouhani term when Iranians vote on May 19, announced Tuesday he was pulling out.  He had appeared at a Tehran rally alongside Rouhani on Saturday, where he was cheered by the president’s supporters.

“I feel I have fulfilled my responsibility and so along with you I will vote for Rouhani,” Jahangiri, Iran’s vice-president, said in an address to supporters in the central province of Fars. “I am here to ask people to help a sincere, caring and capable president.”

The move -- along with the endorsement of Hassan Khomeini, whose grandfather Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini led the 1979 Islamic Revolution -- came a day after conservatives united behind the candidacy of cleric Ebrahim Raisi in an effort to combine their votes and narrow the gap to the president.

Khomeini’s proximity to the moderate camp was known but his public backing of Rouhani wasn’t expected, said Raffaele Mauriello, a post-doctoral research fellow in world studies at the University of Tehran. His statement shows he’s taking campaign developments “seriously” and considers “Raisi has a chance” of securing the presidency.

Read more: Iran’s Election: Where the Candidates Stand.

The campaign has been marked by stark differences over economic policy between the investment-friendly Rouhani, the architect of the 2015 nuclear deal, and conservatives who want to expand subsidies for the poor and spur domestic industry. A victory for hardliners would risk exacerbating tensions with the Trump White House -- which has vowed to curtail Iranian influence in the Middle East -- and America’s Sunni Gulf allies.

Raisi, flanked by Tehran mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf who exited the race on Monday, appeared at a gender-segregated rally in Tehran on Tuesday, where thousands gathered chanting “when the week is done, Rouhani is gone!”

Raisi supporters have been celebrating Qalibaf’s backing with motorbike processions through downtown Tehran, sounding their horns and chanting “Rouhani, bye bye!”

Qalibaf’s withdrawal gave “strength and momentum to Raisi’s campaign” at a time when voter interest is peaking, said Mauriello. But it remains unclear how many of Qalibaf’s supporters -- especially among younger voters who admired his administration of the capital -- will swing behind the cleric.

Raisi’s candidacy has fueled speculation he is being lined up to succeed Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, 77. It was Khamenei who last year appointed Raisi, 56, to manage the Astan Quds Razavi, an Islamic charity that controls assets worth billions of dollars, as well as the Imam Reza shrine in the northeastern holy city of Mashhad.

A survey by the state-affiliated Iranian Students Polling Agency last week put support for Rouhani at 42 percent, with Raisi on 27 percent and Qalibaf, before he withdrew, at 25 percent.

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