Moderate Hassan Rouhani fights to secure 2nd term



Kim Hjelmgaard and Farhad Babaei

Published 4:57 a.m. ET May 19, 2017 | Updated 2 minutes ago

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Iranian voters will decide the fate of moderate President Hassan Rouhani and his policy of engagement with the West on Friday as he goes head-to-head with hardline cleric Ebrahim Raisi. While Iranians largely welcomed the reduced tensions with the West, the ongoing economic slump has taken a toll on morale. But many voters, particularly wealthier urbanites, are still attracted to Rouhani’s promise of greater social freedoms.
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TEHRAN — Iranians stood in long lines Friday to vote in the country’s first presidential election since its nuclear deal with world powers, with President Hassan Rouhani facing a fierce challenge from a hard-line cleric who has criticized the incumbent’s pledges of greater personal freedoms and improved relations with the West.

Four candidates are officially running, with Rouhani, 68, the close favorite. He is seeking another four-year term but faces tough competition from Ebrahim Raisi, 56, a conservative with close ties to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final say on all matters related to domestic and foreign policy.

“Elections are very important and the fate of the country is in the hands of all people,” Khamenei said, casting his ballot in Iran’s capital, Tehran.

The contest is largely seen as a referendum on Rouhani’s more moderate political stance and his brokering of the 2015 nuclear accord in exchange for the lifting of some economic sanctions. However, many Iranians have yet to feel the benefits of the deal, which saw Iran limit its contested nuclear program.

“Rouhani has forgotten a lot of the promises he gave four years ago,” said Gholam Hosein Sadeghi, 22, a Raisi supporter who is a student.

Voting is scheduled to finish at 6 p.m. local time (9:30 a.m. ET), although authorities routinely keep polls open longer. Partial results are due as early as Saturday morning, but the timing of the outcome also can be unpredictable. If no candidate receives more than 50% of the vote, a run-off will be held on May 26. About 56 million people are eligible to cast ballots out of a population of 80 million. A high turnout would probably favor Rouhani.

President Trump has ordered a review of the nuclear agreement that he has called “the worst deal in history,” though he this week extended the sanctions relief granted under the deal. However, he also imposed new economic penalties over Iranian ballistic missile activity. On the Iranian side, both the frontrunners in the election would likely keep the deal, although Raisi could be expected to insist that the remaining sanctions, on financial services for example, be lifted more quickly.

Raisi has vowed to fix Iran’s troubled economy — unemployment is running at almost 13% — and create millions of jobs.

Mostafa Hashemitaba, 70, a moderate, and Mostafa Mirsalim, 69, an ultra-conservative, are the other two candidates running for the presidency.

Mobina Shamabadi, 19, a painter from Tehran who was voting for the first time, said she was backing Rouhani because he more clearly offered the prospect of improved international relations, a sentiment that was shared by Masha Nader, 24, an architect from Iran’s capital.

“Rouhani had the courage to seek diplomatic ties with other nations again and that has helped put Iran on the world scene,” Nader said.

Meanwhile, 21-year-old engineering student Asghar Karimi preferred Raisi. She felt he would ensure that Iran stayed a strong Islamic republic.

In addition, she said, “(Raisi) has solid plans for the economy, takes a hard line against corruption and will maintain our national pride.”

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Hjelmgaard reported from London.

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