Iran's impending presidential election is shaping up much like the last one. As it was in 2013, the economy will again be the primary issue for voters as they head to the polls May 19. Iran's foreign policy has also figured prominently in the campaign, mostly as it pertains to the country's economy. And each candidate, as usual, has striven to portray himself as the embodiment of the revolutionary ideals and moral tenets the Iranian president is charged with upholding under Article 115 of the Iranian Constitution.
But the similarities notwithstanding, much has changed in the four years since the last presidential vote. The country's economic straits, for example, have improved since President Hassan Rouhani implemented the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the deal Iran struck with the United States and five other countries in 2015 over its nuclear program. Tensions between the president and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei are relaxed today, compared with former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's time in office. Iranian politics, meanwhile, has become more starkly divided between hyper-conservatives and more moderate conservatives. In addition, the Syrian war — in which Iran is actively involved — has become more complex, drawing in more foreign participants. The fight against the Islamic State has accelerated, and U.S. President Donald Trump's administration has taken a firm stance on Tehran's activities throughout the Middle East. Taken together, these factors pose a serious challenge for Iran's security and stability, even if the government's finances are more assured now that it faces fewer economic sanctions (as Rouhani's campaign has emphasized). Concerns about the country's security, along with its lingering economic problems, will weigh heavily on voters as they cast their ballots for the next president.
Going into the polls, Rouhani has a few advantages over his competitors. The Iranian political system and electorate tend to favor incumbent candidates in an effort to ensure policy continuity and stability. Even Ahmadinejad won a second term in 2009, despite having strained relations with the supreme leader. Similarly, though the current president's relationship with Khamenei has weathered its share of storms, Rouhani still has his support and that of some powerful politicians in the moderate conservative camp, such as parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani. Rouhani also still has the official backing of Iran's reformists. Former President Mohammed Khatami, a cleric and prominent figure in the reformist camp, defied the media blackout that has restricted his communication for the past two years to endorse Rouhani on May 2. Another influential reformist leader, Mehdi Karroubi — who has been under house arrest since 2011 — has also expressed his support for the president. In fact, some of Rouhani's challengers in the race, including his former vice president, Eshaq Jahangiri (who dropped out of the running May 16) and reformist Mostafa Hashemitaba, have even thrown their weight behind Rouhani's moderate and comparatively progressive policies.
The president's popularity among reformist voters may be a different story, however. After all, many of the social reforms Rouhani promised in his 2013 campaign — including measures to minimize censorship in the film industry and address women's rights issues — have gone unfulfilled. His failure to follow through on these policies could cost him support among the electorate's reformists, though Rouhani will still almost certainly collect the most reformist votes of any candidate in the running. To improve his standing, the president campaigned on liberal financial policies, such as taxing charitable trusts, while highlighting the background of opponent Ebrahim Raisi, a conservative cleric, as a prosecutor involved in executions, a galvanizing issue for reformists and moderates alike.
Regardless of his struggles with social reform, Rouhani has made significant headway in developing Iran's economy over the past four years, thanks in large part to the JCPOA. Iran's exports, including oil, have increased substantially since the deal's implementation. Its per capita gross domestic product has climbed, and inflation has plummeted. But though Rouhani has made these accomplishments the focus of his campaign, they may not be enough to overcome the rampant inequality, high unemployment, scanty foreign investment and widespread corruption that still plague Iran. The problems are especially pronounced in Iran's poor rural regions, a factor that could hurt Rouhani's performance. A group of angry coal miners lambasted the president about their low salaries when he visited them May 7 in the wake of a deadly mine explosion. Likewise, local leaders gave Rouhani a chilly reception on a recent trip to the Kurdish areas of northwest Iran, which overwhelmingly supported him in 2013. Economic discontent among the country's rural voters could discourage them from even showing up to the polls, in spite of the supreme leader's calls for the highest possible turnout. (Voter turnout was 76.2 percent in 2013, just 3 percent shy of the record set in 1999. Any less than 63 percent turnout, the all-time low reached in 2005, would be embarrassing for the government.)
Rouhani's opponents in the race have seized on the disappointments of the president's first term, including Iran's lingering economic troubles, to try to bolster their own campaigns. The leading contenders for the presidency have even used the JCPOA, a deal they unanimously support, to argue that the incumbent candidate is more interested in Western investment than in the economic concerns of ordinary Iranians. Still, even the most conservative candidates still in the running — Raisi and former Culture Minister Mostafa Mir-Salim — have largely refrained from attacking Rouhani's stance toward the West. Raisi, in fact, said that he espouses open policies toward all nations except Israel, though he wants to make sure his country gets the most out of its international relations. Iran's conservatives are mostly concerned with ensuring that the country's ties with the West take a back seat to domestic issues.
Throughout the campaign season, Raisi and Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf seemed to be in a dead heat for Iran's conservative voter base, each attempting to discredit Rouhani's economic policies and calling for a tougher stance on security. The two candidates built their campaigns on populist policies, such as increasing the cash handouts that Ahmadinejad instituted during his tenure. (Rouhani's administration has come under fire from populist leaders in Iran for trying to cut handouts, which currently stand at $12 per family per month.) Then Ghalibaf — who enjoyed support not only among members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, but also, as Tehran's mayor, among urban voters in the capital — left the race May 15 and urged his followers to back Raisi. Although he lacks Ghalibaf's military connections and popular appeal, Raisi is well-liked among Iran's clerical establishment. The influential Society of Seminary Teachers of Qom, for example, has endorsed him.
As the playing field becomes less crowded, a showdown between Raisi and Rouhani is looking more and more likely. The current president is favored to win, but surprises are bound to occur, as they have in every Iranian presidential race to date. Given the enthusiasm among hard-liners for a more defensive stance toward adversaries such as the United States, Saudi Arabia and Israel, Raisi may have a shot at victory. He has made a point of trying to draw in poor and populist Iranian voters during his campaign, and his efforts may pay off.
On the eve of the election, many people in and beyond Iran are already looking ahead to the following presidential vote in 2021. That election promises to bring greater change to the Islamic republic because its victor will likely oversee the aging supreme leader's succession. When he eventually dies, Khamenei — who became supreme leader in 1989 (after serving two terms as president) — will end the era of Iran's old guard of revolutionary leaders. Members of the younger generation, that of Rouhani and Raisi, will be vying for position as the process to find his replacement picks up speed in the coming years. And as the number of Iranians born after the 1979 Islamic Revolution continues to grow, the government will have to consider whether to keep pursuing its cautious rapprochement with the United States or revert to a hostile position.