Iranians cast votes Friday in a presidential election expected to be won by Ebrahim Raisi, a hardline candidate who appears to have the backing of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Raisi is the chief of Iran’s judiciary and was the runner-up in Iran’s last presidential election in 2017. Polls opened at 7 a.m. local time for the vote and a result could come late Friday or early Saturday. Incumbent President Hassan Rouhani, a moderate, is stepping down because he has reached his term limit.
Rouhani served two four-year terms and broadly speaking he sought more engagement with the West. As supreme leader, Khamenei ultimately has the final say on all Iran’s domestic and overseas policy. However, the election of a new Iranian president could impact a range of issues, internal and external.
Here are three ways Iran’s vote matters:
The nuclear deal
Washington and Tehran, aided by European nations and Russia, are currently locked in talks over if, and on what terms, to resume a 2015 nuclear accord exited by former President Donald Trump. The field of candidates for Iran’s presidential election has been whittled down to just four – three hardliners and a centrist. A victory for Raisi could complicate those discussions. He was sanctioned by the U.S. over his involvement in the mass execution of Iranian political prisoners in the 1980s.
But Holly Dagres, a London-based senior fellow with the Atlantic Council think tank’s Middle East program, said whoever wins the election is unlikely to change the overall course of the nuclear deal discussions, which are moving toward restoring the accord.
“The human rights sanctions (on Raisi) are a problem but he also supports the nuclear deal, in part because the supreme leader endorses the deal. And just because the president in Iran is changing doesn’t mean the foreign policy will, too.”
It’s the economy (and everything else)
Dissatisfaction with Iran’s economy, as well as longstanding government crackdowns on social and political activists, appears to be behind a likely historically low turnout among Iran’s 60 million eligible voters (out of a population of 80 million). The Iranian Student Polling Agency, a state-backed agency, has estimated a turnout of just 42%. If confirmed, it would be the lowest ever since the country’s Islamic Revolution in 1979.
All the candidates – Raisi; Abdolnasser Hemmati, Iran’s former central bank chief; Mohsen Rezaei, a former Islamic Revolutionary Guard commander; and Amir-Hossein Ghazizadeh-Hashemi, a far-right lawmaker – were approved by Khamenei to run in the election. Of several dozen women hopefuls, all were disqualified.
“Through the participation of the people the country and the Islamic ruling system will win great points in the international arena, but the ones who benefit first are the people themselves,” Khamenei said. “Go ahead, choose and vote,”
U.S. sanctions reimposed on Iran’s major industries, such as oil and plastics, by the Trump administration have exacerbated Iran’s economic problems, including mass unemployment and double-digit inflation. But numerous other issues have contributed to voter apathy, including executions of political prisoners, the shooting down by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard of a Ukrainian commercial airliner, a lack of meaningful reforms and the worst coronavirus outbreak in the Middle East.
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Dagres said a lot of conversations taking place on Clubhouse, an audio social network popular in Iran, bring up the hundreds of protesters who, according to humanitarian groups such as Amnesty International, were killed in November 2019 unrest following a sharp rise in gas prices. The protests spread to dozens of cities in Iran and led to a near-total Internet shutdown that effectively cut Iran off from the outside world for days.
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“Two nights before the election, for example,” said Dagres, “an Iranian was saying on Clubhouse: ‘Well, it seems on the one hand (our government) kills protesters. On the other hand, it wants us to vote, so it can do whatever it wants with us.'”
Over the last several decades Iran has used the detention of dual nationals as bargaining chips in its dealing with western powers, an allegation it says is not true.
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At least 15 dual nationals and one foreign national were known to be imprisoned in Iran as of April 2021, according to research by the Center for Human Rights in Iran, an independent not-for-profit organization.
The White House says it is engaged in indirect discussions with Iran over the imprisonment – on vague spying charges – of U.S. citizens such as father and son Siamak and Baquer Namazi. They have been held in Tehran’s Evin prison since 2015.
Raisi, 60, the frontrunner, has risen through the ranks of Iran’s hardline judiciary, and it remains unclear whether he would look favorably on prisoner swaps.
According to Ervand Abrahamian, an Iranian-American historian, Raisi was a member of a “Death Committee” that in the 1988 ordered the killings of hundreds of political prisoners following a series of fatwas, or Islamic legal opinions, issued by the Islamic Republic’s founder and then-supreme leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
“Raisi’s (likely) victory portends poorly for any meaningful liberalization trends and reveals the conservative political establishment’s confidence in asserting its agenda,” said Sanam Vakil, a senior research fellow at Chatham House, a London think tank.