Iranians Vote For President, With The Nuclear Deal And Economy On Their Minds

ISTANBUL - Heavy voter turnout in Iran brought huge lines and extended voting hours Friday in a pivotal presidential election that could either boost Iran's engagement with the world or possibly plunge the country back into greater diplomatic isolation.

Across the nation, voters filed into schools, mosques and other sites to cast ballots after a campaign offering starkly differing visions.

In the balance was Iran's international outreach - as well as its national identity as a state either moving toward more social and political openness or turning inward to assuage Iranians troubled by reforms and economic stagnation.

Also at stake was the legacy of the incumbent president, Hassan Rouhani, who ended more than a decade of U.N. sanctions as part of a 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, including the United States.

His top challenger is hard-line cleric Ebrahim Raisi, who views the West with suspicion and insists that the easing of sanctions under the nuclear pact has done little to help ordinary Iranians. Two other candidates remained in the race but were considered also-rans. If no one wins more than 50 percent of the vote, a runoff would be held in a week between the two leading candidates.

Iran's top authorities - the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and his circle of ruling clerics - have so far stood behind the nuclear accord that calls for limiting Tehran's nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. Any possible changes to the pact would likely take time to evolve.

But the outcome of the election could have more immediate repercussions across the Middle East. Iran backs anti-Israel factions such as Lebanon's Hezbollah and has close ties with Syria's regime, which is opposed by the United States and its regional allies.

Just as Iran's presidential vote took place, President Donald Trump headed to Iran's main regional rival, Saudi Arabia, to begin a trip that will include a stop in Israel. Iran is expected to be a major topic of Trump's talks in both countries.

Officials cited high voter turnout in extending the voting for at least an extra four hours, leaving open the option of a further extension. According to Iran's electoral law, polls can remain open until midnight but must be closed after that. Raisi complained of "widespread voting violations," according to Iran's semiofficial Fars News Agency and other reports. He was photographed arriving at the Interior Ministry headquarters in Tehran late Friday, but the nature of the claims was not immediately clear.

Rouhani has broad support among moderates and others seeking further openings in Iranian policies, from social codes to outreach to the West. But Raisi has powerful backers among Iran's security establishment and its ruling clerics, led by Khamenei.

Iran's president has important sway over domestic affairs and serves as the face of Iran to the world. But all key policies, such as diplomatic initiatives, must be cleared by Khamenei and his cadre of unelected theocrats.

Still, the election offers clear choices for Iranians on the direction of their country. No Iranian president since 1981 has failed to secure a second four-year term, but Rouhani has faced sharp criticism over the poor economy and what Raisi described as his "weak" position when negotiating with the West.

The nuclear agreement was at the heart of Rouhani's project to end the country's pariah status and rejoin the global economy. If reelected, however, he will face a more confrontational Trump administration, which has taken a harsh line against Iran and placed the nuclear deal under review.

Despite increased tensions with the United States since Trump's election, Rouhani sees Iran as benefiting from better ties with the West and from continuing to court foreign investors. He has also called for greater social and political freedoms in Iran and lashed out at rivals he accused of wanting to thwart progress.

The "era of violence and extremism is over," Rouhani said at a rally this month.

Raisi has seized on economic discontent to run a populist campaign, promising to increase cash handouts to the poor and create more than a million jobs during his first year in office. Iran's unemployment rate has hovered around 12 percent.

Although Raisi has pledged to uphold the nuclear deal, his links to the influential clergy and Revolutionary Guard Corps, a powerful military force with control over key sectors of the economy, suggest an aversion to the soft power of diplomacy. Raisi himself has remained vague on foreign policy positions, but his own domestic legacy includes participation in a 1988 "Death Commission" that oversaw the execution of thousands of political prisoners.

Raisi "has run a campaign focused on economic populist themes, but has not taken strong positions on many other issues," said Farzan Sabet, a fellow at Stanford University and founder of IranPolitik, a blog on Iranian politics.

He has done this "perhaps as a form of strategic ambiguity" that is "intended to keep negative attention focused on his rival," Sabet said.

On Friday, Raisi, Rouhani and Khamenei all cast ballots as the voting began nationwide, and the supreme leader urged Iranians to head to the polls.

"Iranian officials are obsessed with high turnout rates and have been encouraging popular participation in this election, from the campaign stump to the Friday prayer lectern," said Behnam Ben Taleblu, Iran analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington.

Iran's popular foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, appeared amid a crowd of voters at his own polling station.

Elsewhere, people chanted as reformist former president Mohammad Khatami cast his ballot. Khatami served as president from 1997 to 2005 but was banned from speaking publicly after reformists joined widespread protests against disputed election results in 2009. Other opposition leaders - including Mir Hossein Mousavi, his wife, Zahra Rahnavard, and Mehdi Karroubi - remain under house arrest. All vowed to vote for Rouhani.

Although the supreme leader wields ultimate religious and political authority, and a group loyal to him called the Guardian Council vets candidates for office and often disqualifies reformists, Iranian elections remain highly charged and competitive, drawing thousands to rallies around the country.

"A large portion of the population continues to believe - for better or worse - that at a minimum, they want their voices heard in any political contest that is destined to shape their future," Taleblu said. "Reformists and many moderate middle-class Iranians believe that staying on the sides will result in a president that they abhor, whereas voting permits them to live with one they can merely dislike."

Even Maj. Gen. Ali Jafari, commander of Iran's Basij paramilitary force, which is known for its brutality in suppressing demonstrations, was shown casting a ballot Friday. More than 56 million Iranians are eligible to vote in the 63,000 polling stations set up nationwide.

"No matter who is elected, the winner of the election is . . . the Iranian nation," Khamenei said earlier this week in urging Iranians to go to the polls.

After casting his own ballot, Rouhani called on Iranians to unite behind whoever is elected.

"Any candidate who is elected should be helped to accomplish this heavy responsibility," the Associated Press quoted Rouhani as saying.

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