Iranian voters head to the polls on Friday to vote for the country’s next president — and the outcome could completely reshape Iranian engagement with the United States, as well as the rest of the world.
Incumbent President Hassan Rouhani, 68, will be facing his main opponent: conservative cleric Ebrahim Raisi, 56, who has previously been floated as a possible successor to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and represents the forces in the government most loyal to the leader.
A core issue in the election is whether Rouhani fulfilled his promises to fix the Iranian economy, which had been suffering under increased U.S. and international sanctions on the country. The Iranian nuclear agreement reached in July 2015—between Iran and the P5+1 (the United States, United Kingdom, France, China, Russia, and Germany)—promised sanctions relief for Iran in exchange for limits on its nuclear program, and was meant to fix many of the country’s economic problems. But almost two years later, the limited sanctions relief has been slow in transforming the Iranian economy.
Thus, a Raisi victory could be a serious judgment on the landmark agreement, as well as on Rouhani’s policy of engagement with the West in general.
Experts ThinkProgress spoke to said it’s unlikely that the Iran deal will be demolished immediately in the event of a Raisi victory. The deal has received the approval of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, and Raisi ultimately promised to uphold the agreement during the campaign, despite his reservations about it.
“It’s easier to criticize and even promise to tear it up or shred it up during the campaign season, rather than when you come into power,” said Negar Mortzavi, an Iranian American journalist and commentator, who pointed to Trump’s promise to get rid of the Iran deal as an example. “When you actually have to act, you realize this is not just a deal that Obama made, there were six world powers involved… Although the U.S. and Iran were the main players, everybody else spent two year of their time and effort and resources on this, and you know it’s not just a joke that you can tear up.”
Still, the possibility for misinterpretation — and confrontation — over the finer points of the deal could increase under a Raisi administration, especially since the Trump administration has already taken a hostile approach toward Iran.
“American policy towards Iran now is confrontational. It’s very much the opposite of what Obama was trying to accomplish. In fact, it has gone back to the pre-Obama status quo,” said Reza Marashi, Research Director at the National Iranian American Council. “Iran’s election means one of two things is going to happen. Either you’re going to have a Rouhani government who will continue its efforts to reach out to the world diplomatically, and as a result of that, it will make it more difficult for the U.S. to successfully implement a confrontational policy towards Iran — not impossible, but more difficult — or you’ll have a Raisi government that will make it far easier for the United States to implement its confrontational policy towards Iran.”
Marashi said that a Raisi government wouldn’t attack the deal outright — as such a move could be seen as criticism of Khamenei — but the likelihood that it would crumble would be far higher.
“If Raisi gets elected, in my view, I don’t see how anybody can make a reasonable case that the [agreement] over the medium- to long-run will survive,” said Marashi. “Because then you’ll have two heads of state, a president in Iran, and a president in the United States, that are ambivalent at best and adversarial at worst towards the agreement.”
A Raisi victory would be a gift to the American right wing in other ways. In addition to undermining the Iran deal, it would give more credence to the neoconservative argument that Iran should be viewed as a fundamentally hostile power.
On Monday, Elliott Abrams, a leading neoconservative in the George W. Bush and Reagan administrations and key architect of the Iraq War, published a piece in Politico titled “Why I’m Rooting for the Hardliner in Iran’s Elections.” Abrams argued that the continued human rights violations in Iran reveal that “Raisi is the true face of the Islamic Republic, while Rouhani is a façade.” The next day, Reul Marc Gerecht, a senior fellow at the conservative Foundation for Defense of Democracies, who once argued that Iranians have “terrorism in their DNA,” published a similar piece in the Wall Street Journal. He called a Rouhani victory “the worst possible outcome.”
Although both Abrams and Gerecht invoked human rights in their opinion pieces, a large number of human rights activists and former prisoners of the Iranian government have endorsed Rouhani in this election.
Young Iranians campaign for Rouhani on the streets carrying big signs that read: We are in the middle of the way and won't go back… pic.twitter.com/eh2Jg8D0Ln
— Negar (@NegarMortazavi) May 13, 2017
“Opponents of the 2015 landmark nuclear deal prefer a hardliner as president because it reveals ‘Iran’s true face.’ Aesthetically, it makes their opposition easier,” said Hanif Zarrabi-Kashani, an independent Iran researcher. “Optics are huge in this. The stakes are higher now than they were, for instance when [former Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad was in power and constantly making bombastic statements.”
“Currently, the stakes are definitely higher with the majority of officials in the Trump administration cabinet being opposed to the previous diplomatic approach of the Obama administration,” said Zarrabi-Kashani. “With such elevated stakes, the chance of miscalculation between either side, whether it be rhetoric or action in the region will naturally be higher. With a Raisi presidency, we can expect both sides to verbally attack one another in some shape or form.”
Like most elections, the outcome in Iran on Friday will depend in large part on voter turnout. For now, polls show Rouhani in the lead and likely to win in the first of the election’s two rounds, though there are still a significant number of undecided voters.
“Polls in Iran show that Iranians are still very much inclined towards the moderates, which means the continuation of whatever path the nuclear negotiations and the deal made,” said Mortazavi. “The main reason for that is that Iranians have already experienced years of isolation and being cut off from the world — which, interestingly, is something that has been promoted in the U.S. and U.K. now. But Iranians have already experienced that, and they realize the consequences that it has on economic and just daily life. So in that way, Iranian society is one step ahead, and that’s why they want to continue re-engagement with the world.”