Khamenei set to tighten grip on Iran vote as frustrations grow
* Choice limited to five diehards, two moderates
* Anger at the economy, freedoms can keep turnout low
* Uncompromising judge, ex-nuclear negotiator among the hopes
* Dissenters call for boycott
* A tough win would strengthen Khamenei’s control
By Parisa Hafezi
DUBAI, June 15 (Reuters) – Iranians elect a new president on Friday in a race dominated by extremist candidates close to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, with popular anger over economic hardship and restrictions on freedoms expected to keep many pro-reform Iranians at home.
The leader in a carefully controlled field is Ebrahim Raisi, a hard-line judge viewed by analysts and insiders as representing the security establishment at its most formidable.
But the authorities’ hopes for a high turnout and increased legitimacy could be dashed, as official polls suggest that only around 40% of the 59 million eligible Iranians will vote.
Critics of the government attribute the prospect to anger over an economy devastated by U.S. sanctions and lack of voter choice, after an outright election body banned moderate and conservative candidates from running.
The race to succeed President Hassan Rouhani, a pragmatist, will be between five hard-line supporters who embrace Khamenei’s strongly anti-Western worldview, including Raisi and former nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili, and two quiet moderates.
The limited choice of candidates reflects the political demise of Iranian pragmatist politicians, weakened by Washington’s decision to abandon a 2015 nuclear deal and reimpose sanctions in a move that has stifled rapprochement with the West.
“They aligned the sun, moon and sky to make a particular person the president,” moderate candidate Mohsen Mehralizadeh said during a televised election debate.
While mainstream establishment supporters vote, hundreds of dissidents both at home and abroad have called for a boycott, including opposition leader Mirhossein Mousavi, under house arrest since 2011.
“I will side with those who are fed up with humiliating and rigged elections and who will not give in to behind-the-scenes, stealthy and secret decisions,” Mousavi said in a statement, according to the opposition site Kalameh.
Mousavi and his reformist colleague Mehdi Karoubi stood for election in 2009. They became leading figures of pro-reform Iranians who staged mass protests after the vote was won by hard-line supporter Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in a competition they believed to be rigged.
If judiciary chief Raisi wins Friday’s vote, it could increase the middle-ranking Shia cleric’s chances of succeeding Khamenei, who himself served two terms as president before becoming supreme leader.
Rights groups have criticized Raisi, who lost to Rouhani in the 2017 election, for his role as judge in the executions of thousands of political prisoners in 1988. Raisi was appointed head of the judiciary in 2019 by Khamenei.
However, the Iranians do not rule out the unexpected.
In the 2005 presidential poll, Ahmadinejad, the son of a blacksmith and former guardian of the revolution, was not in sight when he defeated powerful ex-president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, previously widely regarded as the frontrunner.
“(Saeed) Jalili’s chances of surprising us should not be underestimated,” Tehran-based analyst Saeed Leylaz said.
Although Khamenei publicly did not favor any candidate, analysts have said he would prefer a staunch loyalist like Raisi or Jalili as president.
The elections are unlikely to bring a major change to Iran’s foreign and nuclear policies, already defined by Khamenei. But an outright president could strengthen Khamanei’s hand at home.
Iran’s devastated economy is also a big factor.
To convince voters concerned about the bread and butter issues, the candidates pledged to create millions of jobs, fight inflation and hand money back to low-income Iranians. However, they have yet to say how these pledges will be funded.
All the candidates support talks between Iran and world powers to revive the 2015 nuclear deal and lift the sanctions.
But moderate candidate Abdolnaser Hemmati said hardliners seek tension with the West, while conglomerates they control rake in large sums by circumventing sanctions.
“What will happen if the extremists come to power? No more sanctions with more global unanimity,” Hemmati, who was central bank chief until May, said in a televised debate.
Please also see
Judge, banker, negotiator among the Iranian presidential candidates
Iranian presidential favorite is hardline US sanctioned judge
The presidential election process in Iran
(Written by Parisa Hafezi, edited by William Maclean)