Friday 20th October, 2017
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TEHRAN, Iran - About 55 million Iranian voters will head to the polls on Friday, in what has soon become one of the closest elections in the country in recent times. 

While incumbent President Hassan Rouhani is seeking a second four-year term as President, he has received a surprisingly strong challenge from Ebrahim Raisi, a conservative cleric who is being considered a potential successor to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei - an unelected head of state seen as the guardian of the Islamic republic and God's emissary on Earth.

In his bid, Rouhani has vowed to end all remaining sanctions still imposed on Iran for human rights abuses, ballistic missile tests and terrorism support.

However, Rouhani’s signature achievement, the nuclear agreement, that was supposed to put him on the path to victory in the reelection, failed to lift the economy.

That is the weakness that Raisi has backed his bid on.   

Backed by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the paramilitary Basij, security forces that wield a huge amount of political and economic clout, Raisi has used the widespread disappointment over the 2015 Iran nuclear deal to unseat the current President. 

Meanwhile, Khamenei, who holds the ultimate power in Iran has dropped subtle hints that he favors Raisi.

Raisi has accused Rouhani of not capitalizing on the agreement - inevitably blaming him for the deepening poverty and rising unemployment afflicting the country.

Iran is already awash with oil deals since nuclear sanctions were lifted. 

Raisi has pledged to triple government subsidies, currently $12 a month for the poorest Iranians.

If Raisi wins, both Iran and the United States would be led by presidents who have claimed that the deal was a bad one and believe in the ideology of displaying military strength over diplomacy. 

According to Farzan Sabet, a nuclear security fellow and Iran analyst at Stanford University, “Iranians are still hurting economically, especially from unemployment, and this has turned out to be a major weakness of Rouhani in this election. Raisi has sought to exploit this weakness through a populist message.”

Djavad Salehi-Esfahani, an Iranian economist who is a fellow at Harvard said, “Everyone talks about the economy. The middle class and upper middle class in Tehran have money and want to be left alone to enjoy it. Below the median income, the economy is the number one issue. Incomes have fallen except for Tehran, so people don’t feel better off and are susceptible to promises of cash.”

Last year, Iranian economy grew 6.6 percent - most of the growth was however, recorded on the back of oil sales to international markets. 

However, reports pointed out that few of the gains trickled down to the ordinary population.  

Further, the Council on Foreign Relations has noted that unemployment has risen to 11 percent in the oil-rich country and is estimated to be far higher for under-25s.

Suzanne Maloney, an Iran analyst at the Brookings Institution believes, “The deal won’t go anywhere next week. If it’s undercut by Iranian rejection of what the deal brought, it will be more difficult to anticipate it enduring more than months.”

Three decades back, Raisi was involved in mass executions of political prisoners and his victory, experts believe could provide the Trump administration further justification for a more confrontational approach to the Islamic Republic.

Meanwhile, a victory for Rouhani would be welcomed by Europeans who seek more business dealings with Tehran.

Europeans are also more likely to resist or ignore any U.S. efforts to slap nuclear sanctions back on Iran.

Pointing at the existential choice faced by voters, Rouhani said that the main issue is whether to continue pursuing diplomatic and economic engagement with the West or tension and more isolation from the world.

According to Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, “It Rouhani wins, it won’t change their perceptions of Iran. If Raisi wins, it makes their case easier to portray Iran as the malign actor in the region.”

What do the polls reveal?

According to an independent survey conducted by the Iranian firm Ayandeh last week - Rouhani was seen to be leading Raisi, 27 percent to 10 percent, but a huge 53 percent remained undecided. 

Another poll by the semiofficial Fars News Agency showed Raisi ahead of Rouhani, 48 percent to 45 percent. 

If no candidate surpasses 50 percent, a runoff will be held next week.

Rouhani is seen to have his strongest support in urban centers, while Raisi has campaigned mostly in the more traditional rural areas. 

However, Iran has a long history of ballot box tampering and suspicions of a rigged vote in 2009 led to massive street protests that were suppressed violently.

Rouhani has positioned himself as the anti-establishment candidate who dared to negotiate the nuclear deal with the enemy, the United States - however, if he fails, he would become the first president in Iranian history to lose reelection.

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