TEHRAN -- Iranian voters are to elect a new president Friday, with Ayatollah Ebrahim Raisi expected to win and replace President Hassan Rouhani.
The landmark achievement of Rouhani’s two consecutive four-year terms, the maximum allowed, was the accord under which Tehran accepted limits on its nuclear program in return for relief from sanctions.
But hopes that Iran would reap the benefits were dashed three years ago when then-U.S. president Donald Trump ripped up the deal and launched a “maximum pressure” campaign against the country.
The country of 83 million, blocked by the U.S. from selling its oil to and trading with much of the world, suffered as a result while Rouhani and his camp were harshly criticized for having trusted the West.
Ayatollah Raisi, aged 60 and the former head of the country’s judiciary, belongs to the principlist camp that is distrustful of the West.
A Raisi victory would mean that, months after U.S. President Joe Biden ousted Trump, with his uncompromising stance on Iran, from the White House, the pendulum would swing the other way in Tehran.
In a live televised debate, Raisi avoided clashing with two reformist candidates, instead focusing on Iranians’ economic woes.
His challengers include former head of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) Mohsen Rezai. Also running is central bank governor Abdolnasser Hemmati.
Three other candidates, ex-vice president Mohsen Mehralizadeh, former MP Alireza Zakani and former nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili pulled out of the race Wednesday.
If no candidate wins a clear majority on Friday, the two top candidates will go head-to-head in a runoff a week later, on June 25.
Campaigning kicked off in late May, but it has been affected by coronavirus restrictions on public gatherings.
The departure of 64-year-old Mehralizadeh, who served as governor in two Iranian provinces, is aimed at consolidating support for Hemmati, who has positioned himself as a stand-in for Rouhani.
Polling and analysts indicate Hemmati lags behind Ayatollah Raisi. Also ending their campaign, Zakani, a 55-year-old lawmaker, and Jalili threw their support behind Raisi.
“I consider him (Raisi) to be the most qualified,” Zakani was quoted as saying by state TV.
Over 200 lawmakers in parliament released a statement late Wednesday urging the rest of the principlist contenders to withdraw and back Raisi’s presidential bid.
Some candidates, however, doubled down on their campaigning. In a mass text message to citizens, Rezaei repeated his pledges to expand affordable housing for the country’s poorest, pay monthly salaries to homemakers and provide all Iranians with a monthly $20 stipend.
Mehralizadeh had previously served as vice president in charge of physical education and as a deputy in the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, which runs the country’s nuclear energy program. He came in last place in Iran’s 2005 election.
Zakani heads the parliament’s research center. As a lawmaker, he became known for his outspoken opposition to Tehran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.
As the field narrowed on Wednesday and Hemmati sought to rally the pro-reform vote, he announced that he’d select current Foreign Minister Muhammad Javad Zarif to join his administration as either vice president or foreign minister, embracing the top diplomat who was an architect of the tattered nuclear deal.
“The economic development of Iran is not possible without strong diplomatic engagement abroad,” Hemmati wrote on Twitter to explain his choice of Zarif. “My administration is after the removal of sanctions and use of foreign policy to achieve political development.”
Zarif, among the best-known political figures in the Rouhani administration, has come under fire in recent weeks after the leak of a contentious audiotape in which he made controversial remarks.
Rouhani pleaded with the Iranian public to vote amid reports that some voters are deeply disappointed after his years in office which marked his administration’s mishandling of the economy.
“The way of expressing our complaints is not turning our backs on ballot boxes. ... Some may say that the situation has become so tough for us. I tell them to cast their votes despite the troubles,” he said. “Going to polling stations in present circumstances ... makes us more powerful.”