Iran vote to determine next president, direction

Photo: AP In this Saturday, June 12, 2021 file photo made available by Young Journalists Club, YJC, presidential candidate Ebrahim Raisi leaves a final debate of candidates, at a state-run TV studio in Tehran.

Iran’s presidential election Friday will determine who will lead the country’s civilian government as tensions remain high between the Islamic Republic and the West over its tattered nuclear deal with world powers.

Among the four candidates, hard-line judiciary chief Ebrahim Raisi appears to be the front-runner based on state-linked polling. Abdolnasser Hemmati, the former head of Iran’s Central Bank, appears to be representing moderates in the race. Also running are Mohsen Rezaei, a former Revolutionary Guard commander; and Amir Hossein Ghazizadeh, a current lawmaker. At the country’s three debates, it appeared to instead be a two-man race as candidates largely targeted Hemmati for criticism over being part of the administration of current President Hassan Rouhani until recently.

Rouhani, whose government reached the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, is term limited from seeking another four years in office. The Guardian Council, Iran’s constitutional watchdog that approves candidates, also barred a number of prominent candidates from running this year. They included Ali Larijani, a conservative former parliament speaker who in recent years found himself allied with Rouhani. Also barred was former hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He still remains popular for his populist policies while in office despite his antagonism of the West. While Larijani accepted being blocked, Ahmadinejad has urged his supporters not to take part in the vote. Meanwhile, women remain barred from running, as do those calling for wholesale change in the country’s government.

Iran’s president oversees the civilian arm of the country’s government. The president sets domestic policy, which is important as Iran has faced years of crushing sanctions from the US after then-President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew America from Tehran’s nuclear deal. Those economic problems have seen nationwide protests twice in Rouhani’s time in office. Iran also has faced wave after wave of new cases in the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. The presidency also sets the tone for how Iran interacts with the wider world. However, the winning candidate will be under Iran’s supreme leader, who has final say on all matters of state.

At the heart of Iran’s complex power-sharing government created after the 1979 Islamic Revolution is the supreme leader. The supreme leader also serves as the country’s commander-in-chief of its military and the powerful Revolutionary Guard, a paramilitary force that also has vast economic holdings across Iran. An 88-member elected clerical panel called the Assembly of Experts appoints the supreme leader and can remove one as well, though that’s never happened. Iran’s current supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is 82 - leading some analysts to suggest this might be the last election he oversees.

Iran describes itself as an Islamic Republic. It holds elections and has elected representatives passing laws and governing on behalf of its people, though the supreme leader has the final say on all state matters. However, the Guardian Council barred most allies of Rouhani and reformists from running in this election. Those who led Iran’s Green Movement after Ahmadinejad’s disputed 2009 re-election also remain under house arrest. Iran does not allow international observers to monitor its elections, which its Interior Ministry oversees. Security forces answering only to the supreme leader also routinely arrest and hold closed-door trials for dual nationals, foreigners and those with Western ties, using them as pawns in international negotiations. Raisi, as the head of the judiciary, faces international criticism for those arrests.

Iran’s tattered nuclear deal with world powers hangs in the balance as the country prepares to vote on Friday for a new president and diplomats press on with efforts to get both the US and Tehran to reenter the accord.

The deal represents the signature accomplishment of the relatively moderate President Hassan Rouhani’s eight years in office: suspending crushing sanctions in exchange for the strict monitoring and limiting of Iran’s uranium stockpile.

The deal’s collapse with President Donald Trump’s decision to unilaterally withdraw America from the agreement in 2018 spiraled into a series of attacks and confrontations across the wider Middle East. It also prompted Tehran to enrich uranium to highest purity levels so far, just shy of weapons-grade levels.

With analysts and polling suggesting that a hard-line candidate already targeted by US sanctions will win Friday’s vote, a return to the deal may be possible but it likely won’t lead to a further detente between Iran and the West.

Since President Joe Biden took office, his diplomats have been working with other world powers to come up with a way to return both the US and Iran to the deal in negotiations in Vienna. There have been no direct US-Iran in those negotiations, though separate talks have been underway involving a possible prisoner swap.

In Friday’s presidential election in Iran, hard-line judiciary chief Ebrahim Raisi appears to be the front-runner. He’s already said he wants to return Iran to the nuclear deal to take advantage of its economic benefits. But given his previous belligerent statements toward the US, further cooperation with the West at the moment appears unlikely.

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