TEHRAN, Iran – Iran has announced the final list of candidates for next month’s presidential race, which will largely serve as a referendum on the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.
President Hassan Rouhani is widely seen as the front-runner, but could face tough competition from hard-line cleric Ebrahim Raisi, who is close to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and popular among hard-liners. Former hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sought to run but was disqualified.
The following candidates were approved by the Guardian Council, which vets candidates for Iran’s elections. Half of its 12 members are clerics appointed by Khamenei, who also makes all final decisions on major policies.
Rouhani, 68, is a moderate elected in 2013 on pledges of greater personal freedoms and improved relations with the West. His government negotiated the 2015 nuclear deal, which saw Iran accept curbs on its nuclear program in exchange for relief from crippling international sanctions.
Since the deal went into effect, Iran has doubled its oil exports and inked multi-billion-dollar aircraft deals with Boeing and Airbus. But critics of the deal say the economic benefits have yet to filter down to ordinary Iranians, creating an opening for Rouhani’s hard-line rivals.
Early in his tenure, in 2013, he shared a phone call with then-President Barack Obama, the highest-level exchange between the two countries since Iran’s 1979 revolution and the U.S. Embassy hostage crisis.
Rouhani has faced pushback from conservatives and hard-liners, who criticized the nuclear deal as giving too much away and who have blocked many of his Cabinet picks.
Raisi, 56, is a hard-line cleric close to Khamenei who has vowed to combat poverty and corruption. He could pose the biggest challenge to Rouhani, especially if he can unify hard-liners.
Last year, Khamenei appointed Raisi as head of the Imam Reza charity foundation, which manages a vast conglomerate of businesses and endowments in Iran. Khamenei called Raisi a “trustworthy and highly experienced” person, causing many to wonder if he might also be a possible successor to the supreme leader himself.