Iran Presidential Election: Economy Is Focus as Rouhani Faces Raisi

TEHRAN, Iran — Up to 55 million Iranians will vote Friday in a presidential election that pits moderates against religious conservatives and has economic fallout from the American-backed nuclear deal at its heart.

Iran is far from a complete democracy and the president is not the most powerful person in the country. That job falls to 77-year-old Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, an unelected head of state seen as the guardian of the Islamic republic and God’s emissary on Earth.

And not just anyone can become president. Candidates are being strictly vetted. More than 1,600 people put themselves forward, but Iran’s unelected conservative Islamic Guardian Council whittled the list down to just six.

All of those who made the cut are Shiite Muslim men. No woman has ever been chosen.

Iran’s hybrid system — half theocracy, half democracy — leaves it classed as “authoritarian” and ranked 154th out of 167 countries in a global democracy index compiled by the Economist Intelligence Unit.

“Iranian presidential elections are notable for being unfree, unfair, and unpredictable,” Karim Sadjadpour, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote last week.

Hassan Rouhani, the incumbent president, is seeking to be returned to power. In the West, he’s best known for delivering the 2015 nuclear deal.

But while the 68-year-old has been successful in slashing Iran’s sky-high inflation and encouraging economic growth, his critics say the nuclear deal has not prompted better living standards for ordinary Iranians.

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

The economy has been a point of contention between Rouhani and Supreme Leader Khamenei, who has criticized the president for relying on foreign investment.

Image: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani next to a portrait of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in 2015

President Hassan Rouhani waves to journalists next to a portrait of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.