Iran goes to the polls as ‘outsider’ Rouhani seeks to liberalize country


Rouhani, considered a moderate, was a key architect of the 2015 nuclear deal with the US, the EU and other partners. The election is being seen, at least in part, as a referendum on that agreement, which has so far yielded mixed economic results for Iranians.

His closest opponent is conservative cleric Ebrahim Raisi, who has cast doubt on the benefits of the nuclear deal.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was among the first to cast his ballot and urged others to do the same. “I believe that the presidential election is very important. The fate of the country is in the hands of people,” he said.

Raisi is widely seen as Khamenei’s preferred candidate — indeed, he is often mentioned as his possible successor.

Rouhani, meanwhile, is essentially running for reelection as an outsider, and is being backed by Iran’s reformist camp.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani casts his vote in the 2017 election.

For many in Iran, especially in affluent areas of the capital, Tehran, Rouhani has provided a glimpse of what many have long desired — engagement with the outside world, without the types of banking and visa restrictions, as well as economic sanctions — that left them feeling so isolated.

Reform-minded supporters recognize that Rouhani isn’t perfect — he too, after all, is also a cleric. But he’s widely seen by reformers as their best hope for change.

Iranians queue to cast their ballots in presidential elections in Tehran on May 19, 2017.

A CNN crew in North Tehran saw long lines at polling stations, with some people waiting more than two hours to vote despite the scorching heat. Most who spoke to CNN said it was their duty and that they couldn’t complain about the result later if they didn’t vote.

Conservative frontrunner

Should Raisi win, Iran is expected to retreat from the kind of nascent international engagement seen during Rouhani’s first term.

Raisi’s history may deter some voters — the 56-year-old cleric was a member of the so-called “Death Commission,” which presided over the summary executions of thousands of political prisoners in the summer of 1988.

But Rouhani won’t necessarily benefit.

Iranians queue to cast their votes at a polling station in Tehran.

Ahmad Majidyar, who leads the IranObserved Project at the Middle East Institute, believes that “many reformists are dismayed by the President’s unwillingness to stand up to the country’s judiciary and security establishment,” meaning many may simply not bother to vote at all.

In a tight contest, a traditionally high turnout among conservatives could be enough to give Raisi victory.

However, Rouhani has history on his side: no sitting President has failed to win a second term since 1981.

Official results, announced by Iran’s Ministry of Interior, are not expected until later this weekend. If no one candidate achieves an absolute majority — over 50% of the vote — a runoff will take place on May 26.

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The president has had a tough time defending the 2015 nuclear deal and his opponents have accused him of not making good on his promises. Debates have largely centered on this issue.

Rouhani billed the deal as one that would thrust open the gates of economic opportunity, bring the country out of its isolation and create millions of jobs for Iranians.

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