Iranian polling stations opened on Friday for a presidential election that is widely viewed as a referendum on whether the Islamic republic should continue to pursue gradual reforms and a cautious opening up to the world.
The race pits Hassan Rouhani, the pragmatic president and architect of Iran’s landmark nuclear deal with world powers, against Ebrahim Raisi, a hardline cleric running for political office for the first time.
Mr Rouhani, who is seeking a second term, is the candidate of pro-reform groups who believe the Islamic republic’s survival is dependent on allowing greater social and political freedoms to address the frustrations and aspirations of young Iranians.
Mr Raisi, a former prosecutor-general who had little national profile before the election, has campaigned on a populist stance, promising to triple state benefits and create 1m jobs annually. Believed to be backed by the powerful Revolutionary Guards, the judiciary and the conservative clergy, he has also appealed to pious Iranians who want more focus on the republic’s Islamic values.
Long queues formed outside polling stations in mosques and schools in Tehran and other cities as voting began.
Akram, 35, a government employee, said she voted for Mr Raisi because “ Rouhani “betrayed the country” with the nuclear agreement.
“If [Donald] Trump imposes more sanctions on Iran it will be better because we will be less dependent on them [foreign powers],” she said, outside a polling station in a working-class neighbourhood of the capital. “He did not fulfil his promises like improving the economy and creating jobs.”
But in downtown Tehran, three men in a tea shop said they had cast their ballots for Mr Rouhani as they showed off the blue stains on their fingers that proves people have voted. “Under Rouhani more tourists are coming to Iran and we are more respected outside, our image has improved,” said Javad, 37. “If Raisi is elected the world will abandon us . . . we want freedom.”
Observers say the race could be tight after a fiercely fought contest in which both camps indulged in mud-slinging.
The vote has added significance because analysts see it as a platform for political factions to position themselves ahead of the eventual succession to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the 77-year-old supreme leader and ultimate decision maker.
Mr Rouhani, 68, will be relying on a high turnout from the urban population and the middle class, while Mr Raisi’s performance is likely to hinge on votes from poorer Iranians living in small towns and rural areas.
The main focus of the campaign has been the weak economy and the nuclear deal, which was implemented last year and led to Tehran curbing its atomic activities in return for the lifting of many sanctions. Both candidates say they will stand by the agreement, the main achievement of Mr Rouhani’s first four years in office.
The accord — signed with the US, Russia, China, the UK, Germany and France — is the main plank of the incumbent’s foreign and economic policies. He hopes it will bring about much-needed foreign investment to bolster an economy in which high youth unemployment and poverty are growing concerns.
But hardliners have criticised the deal for not delivering sufficient benefits to Iran, and accuse Mr Rouhani of agreeing to poor terms. A victory for Mr Raisi, 56, would trigger a wave of uncertainty for foreign powers and overseas investors keen to tap into the oil-rich country of more than 80m people.
Multinationals including Boeing, Peugeot and Airbus, which delivered its first passenger jet in decades to Iran this year, have agreed deals with the Islamic republic. But investors have already been unnerved by Mr Trump’s criticism of the nuclear deal and his tough rhetoric on Iran.
The US president will meet Arab leaders in Saudi Arabia, Iran’s regional rival, and visit Israel days after the election, with containment of Tehran’s regional influence and missile programme expected to be a focus of the talks.
“If Rouhani wins, the main uncertainty [over the nuclear accord] is in Washington. If Raisi wins, the uncertainty is on both sides,” a diplomat said.
Tehran has been cautious not to provoke Mr Trump since he entered the White House. Iran’s foreign policy is largely determined by the supreme leader but the president can play an important role in influencing Tehran’s stance.
Mr Rouhani has made clear that he wants to continue re-engaging with the west, saying he will strive to have remaining sanctions removed. Mr Raisi has been largely silent on his foreign policy positions, and diplomats describe him as an unknown quantity.
Results are expected on Saturday.
Additional reporting by Monavar Khalaj