Iranians vote for president, with the nuclear deal and economy on their minds

Iranians cast their ballots for president Friday in a vote that could either boost Iran’s engagement with the world or possibly plunge the country back into greater diplomatic isolation.

Voters formed long lines at polling stations in mosques, schools, and gymnasiums across the country — from the shore of the Persian Gulf to the Caspian Sea — including in temperatures topping 90 degrees. Many Iranians, speaking to local media, described waiting hours to vote.

“It’s my national responsibility to take part in the elections,” 36-year-old Amin, a resident of Tehran, said to Iranian state television from a polling station Friday. Officials said the high voter turnout could prompt the government to extend voting beyond the 6pm deadline.

At stake is the legacy of the incumbent president, Hassan Rouhani, who ended more than a decade of sanctions as part of a nuclear deal with world powers, including the United States. His top challenger is hard-line cleric Ebrahim Raisi who views the West with suspicion and insists that the easing of international sanction under the nuclear pact has done little to help ordinary Iranians.

While Rouhani has broad support among moderates and others seeking further openings in Iranian policies from social codes to outreach with the West. But Raisi has powerful backers among Iran’s powerful security establishment and its ruling clerics, led by the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameni.

Iran’s president has important sway over domestic affairs and as the face of Iran to the world, but all key policies such as diplomatic initiatives must be cleared by Khamenei and his inner circle of unelected theocrats.

Still, the election offer stark choices for Iranians on the direction of their country. No Iranian president since 1981 has failed to secure a second term, but Rouhani has faced sharp criticism over the poor economy, and what Raisi said was his “weak” position when negotiating with the West.

The 2015 nuclear agreement — which curbs Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief — was at the heart of Rouhani’s project to end the country’s pariah status, and integrate it back into the global economy. If reelected, however, he will face a more confrontational Trump administration, which has taken a harsh line against Iran and placed the nuclear deal under review.

Despite increased tensions with the United States since the election of President Trump, Rouhani sees Iran as benefiting from better ties with the West, and from continuing to court foreign investors. He has also called for greater social and political freedoms in Iran, and lashed out at rivals he accused of wanting to thwart progress.

The “era of violence and extremism is over,” Rouhani said at a rally this month.

But so far, the nuclear deal has improved little in the lives of average Iranians, and Raisi has seized on the discontent to run a populist campaign. Raisi has promised to increase cash handouts to the poor and create more than a million jobs during his first year in office. Iran’s unemployment rate has hovered around 12 percent.

Raisi has pledged to uphold the nuclear deal, which had the blessing of the supreme leader Khamenei, who has the final say on matters of the state. His links, however, to the influential clergy and Revolutionary Guard, a powerful military force with control over key sectors of the economy, suggest an aversion to the soft power of diplomacy. Raisi himself has remained vague on foreign policy positions, but his own domestic legacy includes participation in a 1988 “Death Commission” that oversaw the executions of thousands of political prisoners.

Raisi “has run a campaign focused on economic populist themes, but has not taken strong positions on many other issues,” said Farzan Sabet, a fellow at Stanford University and founder of IranPolitik, a blog on Iranian politics.

He has done this “perhaps as a form of strategic ambiguity,” Sabet said, which is “intended to keep negative attention focused on his rival.”

On Friday, Raisi, Rouhani and Khamenei all cast ballots as the voting began nationwide, and the supreme leader urged Iranians to head to the polls. Iran’s popular foreign minister, Mohammad Javid Zarif, was shown amid a crowd of voters at his own polling station.

Elsewhere, people chanted as pro-reform leader and former president, Mohammad Khatami, cast his ballot. Khatami served as president from 1997 to 2005, but was banned from speaking publicly after reformists joined widespread protests against disputed election results in 2009. Other opposition leaders — including Mir Hossein Mousavi, his wife Zahra Rahnavard, and Mehdi Karroubi — remain under house arrest, but have all said they will vote for Rouhani.

Iran is ruled by a body of clerics known as the Guidance Council, which is chaired by the supreme leader and serves as the ultimate authority.

But there are still elections for key government posts, including the presidency, and the president has the power to appoint the cabinet and help shape domestic and foreign policy.

The races remain highly charged and competitive, drawing thousands to rallies around the country. Even Maj. Gen. Ali Jafari, the commander of Iran’s Basij paramilitary force, which is known for its brutality in suppressing demonstrations, was shown casting a ballot Friday. More than 56 million Iranians are eligible to vote in the 63,000 polling stations set up nationwide.

“No matter who is elected, the winner of the election is … the Iranian nation,” Khamenei said earlier this week to urge Iranians to go to the polls.

After casting his own ballot, Rouhani called on Iranians to unite behind whomever is elected.

“Any candidate who is elected should be helped to accomplish this heavy responsibility,” the Associated Press reported Rouhani as saying.