All Eyes On Iran For Friday’s Election — Religious Hard-liner Mounts Challenge to Rouhani — Iran’s Presidential Race

Voters choose Friday between candidates with conflicting visions—President Hassan Rouhani, who has made an opening to the West, and a political newcomer wary of where such a path leads

Posters of Ebrahim Raisi, a hard-line cleric, being passed out in April in Tehran. Credit Ebrahim Noroozi/Associated Press

Updated May 17, 2017 12:04 p.m. ET

TEHRAN—President Hassan Rouhani faces a hard-line opponent in a national vote Friday that is shaping up as one of the most contentious and consequential elections since the founding of the Islamic Republic in 1979.

The contest puts before Iranian voters two candidates with conflicting visions for the country—Mr. Rouhani, who has made an opening to the West, and a political newcomer wary of where such a path leads.

Ebrahim Raisi, a 56-year-old cleric with close ties to Iran’s supreme leader, has emerged as a tougher-than-expected challenger, taking advantage of economic troubles and railing during campaign rallies against inefficient government and its failure to address corruption.

Mr. Raisi, supported by Iran’s hard-line establishment, has used his campaign to criticize the signature accomplishment of Mr. Rouhani’s first term: the 2015 nuclear deal with six world powers, including the U.S. The agreement lifted most economic sanctions and expanded oil exports.

The Obama administration pushed the nuclear deal, in part, because it believed the lifting of sanctions would allow Iran to eventually moderate its domestic and foreign policies, according to current and former U.S. officials.

The Trump administration has shifted U.S. rhetoric and imposed new sanctions on Iran that target entities involved in Tehran’s ballistic missile program and alleged human-rights abuses. It sees the election as a gauge of Tehran’s future policies, but its antipathy toward Iran is unlikely to change regardless of who wins, a senior Trump administration official said.

Lifting Sanctions on Iran

President Hassan Rouhani, seeking a second term in elections Friday, faces a hard-line opponent who has criticized Mr. Rouhani’s signature achievement: the 2015 nuclear deal that lifted most economic sanctions and boosted oil exports. Mr. Rouhani’s popularity has ebbed among voters who say they haven’t seen the economic benefits.

Mr. Rouhani has during rallies referenced, though never directly, Mr. Raisi’s alleged connections with Iran’s deadly 1988 purges as a longtime member of the judiciary. He told a packed stadium in western Iran this month that voters wouldn’t support candidates who “executed and jailed” fellow citizens.

Mr. Raisi hasn’t addressed Mr. Rouhani’s comments in interviews or speeches. A judiciary spokesman, responding to Mr. Rouhani’s mention of executions, said Tuesday that Iran’s judiciary has helped fight against terrorism.

“My record is that I was a soldier for this country,” Mr. Raisi said Tuesday at a rally in Tehran. “My past was to push away the sinister shadow of terrorists from the country.”

Until recently, the election appeared an easy win for Mr. Rouhani, who is seeking a second four-year term. But his popularity has ebbed since last year as Iranians failed to see economic benefits from the nuclear deal, polls show.

Iran President Hassan Rouhani waves to supporters at a campaign rally this month in Tehran.
Iran President Hassan Rouhani waves to supporters at a campaign rally this month in Tehran. PHOTO: EBRAHIM NOROOZI/ASSOCIATED PRESS

“The situation hasn’t been good in these four years,” said Ali Arjomandi, a 26-year-old medical student who attended a recent rally for Mr. Raisi.

Mr. Rouhani’s support among likely voters was around 61%, according to the most recent polls by Washington-based International Perspectives for Public Opinion; Mr. Raisi was at 27% after Tehran Mayor Mohammad Ghalibaf dropped from the race and gave his support to Mr. Raisi.

Iran’s hard-line factions have coalesced around Mr. Raisi, sending him to the campaign trail after a career spent behind the scenes.

Mr. Raisi has promised to create a million jobs a year, address a nearly 13% unemployment rate and revive financially troubled housing projects for the poor. His campaign message mirrors former hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s in speeches that mix religion, politics and economics.

“In my childhood, I experienced the taste of poverty,” he said in a TV interview last month. “Being an orphan, I worked as child and a teenager, and I know how the deprived feel because I experienced it firsthand.”

Religious pride

A victory by Mr. Raisi would bolster his chances to succeed Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who served two terms as president in the 1980s, analysts said. The supreme leader decides most matters of state, while the president manages policy and serves as Iran’s face to the world.

Few doubt Mr. Khamenei, 77 years old, is behind Mr. Raisi’s rise. In recent speeches, Mr. Khamenei has been critical of Mr. Rouhani’s economic management, a view echoed by Iran’s hard-line media outlets.

Mr. Khamenei appointed Mr. Raisi last year to oversee the Astan Quds Razavi, a charity worth billions of dollars that is central to state-controlled manufacturing and real-estate enterprises under Mr. Khamenei’s control.

Some analysts aren’t convinced Mr. Khamenei is wedded to Mr. Raisi as a successor. “It may be that he’s a contender and Khamenei wants to take him out for a test ride,” said Cliff Kupchan, the chairman of political-risk consultancy Eurasia Group.

Iranian conservative presidential candidate Ebrahim Raisi speaks at a campaign this month in Tehran. The election is Friday.
Iranian conservative presidential candidate Ebrahim Raisi speaks at a campaign this month in Tehran. The election is Friday. PHOTO: ABEDIN TAHERKENAREH/EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY
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At rallies, Mr. Raisi voices a message similar to Mr. Khamenei’s, one that opposes dissent and appeals to emotions triggered by religious pride and Iran’s perceived loss of prestige. It is a view associated with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, an economic and military force that owns monopolistic companies and leads Iran’s forces in Syria and Iraq.

Iran is the main Shiite power in the region—where Shiites are outnumbered by Sunni Muslim countries, led by Saudi Arabia and its Persian Gulf neighbors, most of which are close U.S. allies. These Sunni nations have increasingly battled against what they view as Iranian meddling—and what Iran sees as its role helping suppressed Shiites.

Iran’s strategy, which has put it in conflict with the West, is carried out by the power Mr. Raisi is closest to—Mr. Khamenei and his inner circle, including the Revolutionary Guard.

Mr. Rouhani, 68 years old, is a regime loyalist, but he represents a more technocratic approach to governing that appeals to younger, wealthier and better-educated Iranians. Many in Iran were born after the revolution. Some want to move past the fervor that drove out the shah, triggered the 444-day hostage crisis at the U.S. embassy and frayed ties between the countries.

If Mr. Raisi wins, Iran’s foreign policy would likely break from the Rouhani-led engagement that yielded Iran’s agreement to put limits on its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. A victory by Mr. Raisi also could change Iran’s view on foreign investment. Western companies, including Boeing Co. , have made billions of dollars in sales to Iran since the nuclear agreement.

“Raisi appears to be much more in line with traditional hard-line Iranian thinking about the economy, namely, that integration with the West is costly, and comes with strings attached,” said Behnam Ben Taleblu, a senior Iran analyst at the Washington-based Foundation For Defense of Democracies.

Mr. Raisi has promised to abide by the deal. But he might not be willing or able to persuade the Revolutionary Guard—which sees foreign competition as a threat to its economic power—give up any market share, Mr. Taleblu said.

From left to right, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, German Minister for Foreign Affairs Frank-Walter Steinmeier, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond and US Secretary of State John Kerry at al news conference in Vienna following agreement on Iran’s nuclear deal on July 14, 2015.
From left to right, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, German Minister for Foreign Affairs Frank-Walter Steinmeier, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond and US Secretary of State John Kerry at al news conference in Vienna following agreement on Iran’s nuclear deal on July 14, 2015. PHOTO: IMAGO/ZUMA PRESS
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Mr. Rouhani has been blunt in his critique of the Revolutionary Guard. During the final presidential debate, he criticized the test-firing of a ballistic missile that carried the slogan, “Israel should be wiped off the Earth,” soon after the nuclear deal took effect last year. He said at a rally that monopolies weren’t good for Iran, a veiled reference to the Revolutionary Guard.

“We are at the edge of a great historical decision,” Mr. Rouhani told supporters at a rally Saturday in Tehran. “Our nation this week will announce whether we return to 2012 or head to 2021, if it continues on the path of peacefulness or if it will choose tension.”

Differences between the two candidates stood out during Iran’s three live TV debates. The first exposed Mr. Raisi’s inexperience; he went on the attack in the last two. Mr. Rouhani mostly appeared polished, although criticism from hard-line candidates in the first debate seemed to put him off-balance.

Some voters welcome Mr. Raisi’s promise to increase cash handouts despite strains on the government’s budget. “We want him to save us from hunger and misery,” said Ahmad, age 43, a father of five who works in a bakery. “What will my sons will do when they grow up? I want them to be able to earn money and get married and have children.”

Up the ranks

Mr. Raisi rose through clerical and judicial institutions. In the 1970s, he became a devotee of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Iran’s first supreme leader, while studying in Qom, home to Shiite Islam’s most influential seminaries.

After the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Mr. Raisi became a member of the ruling clique, and in 1980 he began a decadeslong judicial career with his appointment as the assistant public prosecutor in Karaj, west of Tehran.

At age 23, Mr. Raisi reinforced his establishment ties by marrying the daughter of cleric Ahmad Alamolhoda, a close ally of Mr. Khamenei, the current supreme leader. The couple have two daughters. In the 1980s, Mr. Raisi became the deputy to the prosecutor in Tehran’s Islamic Revolutionary court, a special judicial system known for handling politically sensitive cases.

In July of 1988, after eight destructive years of war with Iraq, Mr. Khomeini ordered that political prisoners be questioned by three-member panels made up of a cleric, prosecutor and intelligence official. Any prisoner who professed allegiance to the banned opposition groups was executed, according to international human-rights groups.

Thousands of people were believed killed, these groups say, although the precise number is unknown. Tehran has long denied any such executions.

Mr. Raisi sometimes stood in as a prosecutor on a three-member panel with a religious judge and an intelligence ministry official, according to a report by the Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation, a human-rights group based in Washington, D.C. Mr. Raisi hasn’t responded to the report.

Iranian presidential hopeful Ebrahim Raisi speaks at a mosque in southern Tehran in April.
Iranian presidential hopeful Ebrahim Raisi speaks at a mosque in southern Tehran in April. PHOTO: AHID SALEMI)/SSOCIATED PRESS
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After Mr. Khamenei became Iran’s supreme leader in 1989, Mr. Raisi’s career began to advance. He became head of the judiciary’s General Inspection Organization in 1994 and, a decade later, the first deputy head of the judiciary.

Mr. Raisi’s best chance at beating Mr. Rouhani may come if hard-line organizers can get out the rural vote, which accounts for about 20% of the population and tends to vote conservative, said Mr. Kupchan, of the Eurasia Group.

If Mr. Rouhani wins, as most expect, he may be weakened by his public criticism of the Republican Guard and indirect references to the 1988 executions.

“He’s the guy who attacked some of the core values of the Islamic Republic by airing dirty laundry,” said Ray Takeyh, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. “That creates problems for him in the next four years.”

Mr. Khamenei said as the election approached that anyone who disrupts state security “should know that they will definitely be slapped in the face,” a message that unrest won’t be tolerated.

In 2009, Iranians demonstrated against the re-election of Mr. Ahmadinejad, and authorities arrested thousands of people who were led by supporters of defeated presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi. Mr. Mousavi remains under house arrest.

Mr. Raisi, who was deputy head of the judiciary, promised at the time that those arrested would be dealt with “in a way that will teach them a lesson,” according to the official Islamic Republic News Agency.

Write to Asa Fitch at asa.fitch@wsj.com

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One Response to “All Eyes On Iran For Friday’s Election — Religious Hard-liner Mounts Challenge to Rouhani — Iran’s Presidential Race”

  1. daveyone1 Says:

    Reblogged this on World Peace Forum.

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