Iran goes to the polls on 19 May in the country’s first presidential elections since the landmark nuclear agreement in 2015, when Tehran agreed to roll back its nuclear programme in exchange for the removal of sanctions. The fate of that dea has been thrown into doubt since Donald Trump took the helm at the White House, but despite his increasingly belligerent rhetoric, the US president has so far not taken any serious steps to scrap the accord.
Iran’s relationship with the international community is at stake. The incumbent president, Hassan Rouhani, brought Iran in from the cold, even holding direct talks with the US under Barack Obama, something that was a taboo for more than three decades. The trajectory of Iran’s foreign policy changed dramatically under Rouhani, a moderate cleric, but that approach could shift under a new president.
Internally, a Rouhani defeat would deal a blow to the country’s reformists and bring hardliners back in power.
The election comes at a critical time in Iran: in recent years, particularly since 2014 when the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, underwent prostate surgery, speculation about his potential successor has grown.
Khamenei has the final say in all state matters in Iran, but in the event of his death the president can play a crucial role in the appointment of the next leader, even though it is not up to him to choose one. Khamenei was president in the 1980s when Ayatollah Khomeini, the then supreme leader and the man behind the 1979 Islamic revolution, died. He was then promoted by the council of experts, the body in charge of choosing Iran’s supreme leaders, to succeed Khomeini.
Rouhani’s main challenger, the hardliner Ebrahim Raisi, is believed to have bigger ambitions than just the presidency. Over the past year, he has been touted as a frontrunner to succeed Khamenei. While it is true that Khamenei’s authority surpasses that of the president as long as he is alive, a new president could significantly change the political landscape at home.
Resolving the stalemate over the country’s nuclear programme was Rouhani’s main campaign promise in the 2013 elections – and on this metric he has succeeded. But the elections are also seen as a referendum on how he has performed economically under the terms of the nuclear agreement. Rouhani has stabilised the Iranian economy and brought down inflation but unemployment is high and his opponents have questioned whether his administration has done enough to bring tangible economic benefits.
Raisi has portrayed himself as the candidate of the poor and is running a campaign focused on economic priorities, called “work and dignity”.
Almost any adult of Iranian origin and with Iranian nationality can take his or her identity card, a few passport-sized photos and the necessary documents to the interior ministry in Tehran’s Fatemi Street to register as a candidate. But not everyone is allowed to take part. The guardian council, a powerful body of six clergymen and six jurists, vets each candidacy. Political competence and loyalty to the fundamental principles of the Islamic republic and its religion are among the main issues considered by the council.
This year, out of more than 1,600 who applied to run, only six candidates were accepted. More than 100 women also registered, but none made it past the vetting process. Apart from Rouhani, the five remaining candidates were Eshaq Jahangiri, who is Rouhani’s first vice-president; the Tehran mayor, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, Raisi, along with the relatively low-profile politicians Mostafa Agha Mirsalim and Mostafa Hashemi-Taba. Among those barred from running was the former hardline president Mahmoud Ahmedinejad.
Ghalibaf dropped out in favour of Raisi earlier in the week. Jahangiri also stepped aside in favour of Rouhani, as expected one day later – he was running mainly with the aim of defending the performance of his boss during TV debates and in campaign rallies.
If an overall majority is not achieved in the first round, the two candidates with the most votes will compete in a run-off. Elections are held and results announced under the supervision of an administrative council in the interior ministry. The voting age is 18, and an estimated 55 million Iranians are eligible to vote.
Hassan Rouhani, 68, the reformist-backed moderate incumbent, is a former chief Iranian nuclear negotiator who served as the secretary of Iran’s supreme national security council for 16 years. Under the former president, Mohammad Khatami, Rouhani was responsible for negotiating with the West over Tehran’s nuclear dossier. Under Rouhani, Iran halted its enrichment of uranium and showed more cooperation with the inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency. For many years, Rouhani was a close ally of Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who was regarded as something of a reformer before his death in January.
Rouhani is most often described as a moderate rather than a reformist. But he is also a senior cleric with impeccable revolutionary credentials who has been an adviser to the supreme leader, Khamenei, and held highly sensitive posts in parliament and the establishment. Born in 1948 in Sorkheh, a small town in Semnan province, Rouhani was the eldest of five children in what he called a “religious and revolutionary” family who lived in a modest home surrounded by vines and pomegranates. His father owned a grocery. His mother, Sakineh, remembers him as a calm boy who excelled at school, read the Qur’an and enjoyed swimming and climbing.
He was educated in Qom, the Canterbury of the Shia Muslim world, and changed his family name – which originally was Feridoun – as a security measure to avoid the attention of the Savak secret police when preaching against theShah (Rouhani means cleric in Persian). Unusually for a cleric before the revolution, he studied law at Tehran University. In the 1990s, he was awarded a PhD by Glasgow Caledonian University for a thesis on the flexibility of sharia law with reference to the Iranian experience. Rouhani spent time in Paris with the exiled Ayatollah Khomeini and Rafsanjani and entered parliament after the revolution. During the war with Iraq in the 1980s, he commanded national air defence. In 1986, as deputy speaker in parliament, he took part in secret talks with US officials as part of what became known as the Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages affair.
In 1989, the year Khomeini died and Rafsanjani became president, he was appointed secretary of the supreme national security council. In 2003, with the region in turmoil after the US invasion of Iraq, he became Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, agreeing voluntarily in talks with the EU3 – Britain, France and Germany – to suspend uranium enrichment temporarily.
Ebrahim Raisi, 56, is allied with Iran’s conservatives. He is custodian of Astan Quds Razavi, the wealthiest charity in the Muslim world and the organisation in charge of Iran’s holiest shrine, Imam Reza, in Mashhad in eastern Iran. Over the past year, Raisi has been touted as a frontrunner to become Khamenei’s successor. Some analysts suggest he is being groomed for a possible succession and a win in the presidential elections would pave the way for him. A defeat could scupper his chances of succeeding Khamenei. He wears a black turban, indicating he is a seyed – a direct descendant of the prophet Muhammad, in Shia Islam. Raisi had barely reached adulthood by the 1979 Islamic revolution, but rose quickly through the ranks. In the summer of 1988, he was one of the four sharia judges behind the mass execution of leftists and dissidents.
More recently he was Iran’s prosecutor general and still holds an important division within the judiciary as the head of the court that prosecutes troublemaking clerics. He is married to the daughter of a hardline ayatollah who is the representative of Khamenei in the eastern province of Khorasan-Razavi, home to the Imam Reza shrine.
This edited article originally appeared in The Guardian