A lot of the U.S. coverage leading up to Friday’s Iranian presidential election has compared it to recent political dynamics in the United States and Europe. The parallels are certainly there: The race pits a populist, conservative nationalist and defender of traditional values, who draws much of his support from poorer rural voters left out of the country’s economic growth, against a more moderate, internationalist incumbent, popular with urban elites. But in the Iranian case, the populist challenger is hardly an outsider—he’s a full-fledged member of the country’s ruling establishment running to protect it rather than dismantle it.
A true outsider candidacy isn’t possible in Iran’s political system. The candidates are all vetted for acceptability by the unelected Guardian Council. This year, 1,636 candidates applied, but only six were approved. (Former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was among those eliminated.) Two of the six have since dropped out, but the only two candidates that really matter are incumbent President Hassan Rouhani, and his hard-line challenger, Ebrahim Raisi. While both are members in good standing of the Iranian political establishment, they represent very different factions. Rouhani was elected in 2013 promising to bring economic growth to Iran by ending its international isolation. His signature achievement is the 2015 nuclear deal, which saw international sanctions on the country lifted. He has also advocated for domestic political reforms and increasing civil liberties, but there’s been disappointingly little movement on that front.
Conservative cleric Raisi is a hard-liner who advocates protecting the conservative values of the Iranian revolution. (He’s also one of the judges who presided over an infamous mass execution of leftists and dissidents in the 1988.) While he doesn’t want to tear up the nuclear deal, he does argue that Rouhani has been too deferential to the United States and that ordinary Iranians haven’t seen the economic benefits they were promised from the deal. He has, in the past, been thought of as a front-runner to succeed Ali Khamenei, Iran’s 77-year-old Supreme Leader, an unelected position much more powerful than the president.
A poll in early May showed Rouhani with a healthy lead, but that was before the conservative former mayor of Tehran dropped out and threw his support behind Raisi. Other polls have shown support for both Rouhani and his signature initiative, the nuclear deal, dropping in recent months.
Since the revolution, no Iranian president has ever failed to win a second term. The closest it came to happening was in 2009, when allegations of ballot fraud in Ahmadinejad’s narrow victory led to mass protests—the so-called Green Revolution—and a brutal government crackdown. Some experts have predicted that a narrow victory for Raisi could lead to similar unrest.
In an interesting bit of timing, the election is happening just as U.S. President Donald Trump leaves on his first international trip, which—with stops in Saudi Arabia and Israel—is likely to be an Iran-bashing fest. A number of hawks in Washington, who view Rouhani’s “moderation” as a scam that duped the gullible Obama administration, are more or less hoping for a Raisi victory. The Trump administration also announced new sanctions this week aimed at Iran’s ballistic missile program, though it doesn’t seem to be in a hurry to dismantle the nuclear deal. But the ascension of more hawkish leaders in Tehran and Washington could very well lead to a cycle of Iranian provocations and American sanctions that would effectively render the deal meaningless.