The Cable

What’s at Stake in Iran’s Elections?

That’s up to the powers behind the Iranian throne -- and to one U.S. president.

iran vote

Iranians take to the polls on Friday to decide who their next president will be. Though there are several candidates in the race, the choice boils down to a pick between the current president, Hassan Rouhani, a centrist reformer running for his second term, and Ebrahim Raisi, the conservative hard-liners’ pick (so much so that the more popular Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf dropped out and endorsed Raisi).

Who will it be, and what will the result mean for Iran’s relations with the wider world?

“I think the safe money’s on Rouhani,” Columbia University’s Richard Nephew told Foreign Policy.

Granted, there’s suspicion that the Office of the Supreme Leader and intelligence services are trying to push Raisi into the presidency, and there’s plenty of popular dissatisfaction that Rouhani’s engagement with the wider world hasn’t resulted in the economic boom he promised. But, Nephew said, if turnout is as high as expected, Rouhani should have little trouble securing his second term.

If Rouhani wins, and wins with something of a mandate, Iran’s policy toward the west will remain largely the same — provided the United States remains in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, otherwise known as the Iran nuclear deal. Though he vowed on the campaign trail to tear it up, for now President Donald Trump has kept the nuclear deal in place.

And Rouhani will likely try to push further economic reforms, so that the country can benefit from the deal as he’d said it would — and will probably try to nudge intelligence services out of the economy in the process. The downside to a landslide? If he wins too much of a mandate, the Supreme Leader and company would try to clip his wings.

And if Raisi wins? He, too, campaigned on a platform of sticking with the JCPOA — all candidates did — but probably won’t push the economic reforms necessary to let Iranians fully benefit from the deal, which would, in turn, call into question why Iranians are putting up with the conditions of the deal in the first place.

But the consequences of Raisi’s win would also come down, at least in part, to the United States. If the Trump administration takes it as a sign that hardliners are ascendant in Iran and that there’s little use trying to work with Tehran at all, Nephew said, then “you’ve got competition of the hardliners” — that is, Trump and Raisi — “and that’s not a very good place to be.”

Depending on what happens Friday — just as Trump starts his first foreign trip in Saudi Arabia — the Middle East could get a whole lot more volatile.

Photo credit: ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images

Emily Tamkin is the U.S. editor of the New Statesman and the author of The Influence of Soros, published July 2020. Twitter: @emilyctamkin

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