Iranian conservatives are coalescing around a challenger
to President Hassan Rouhani in upcoming elections. On April 11, presidential hopefuls began registering for the May 19 vote, with Rouhani set to declare whether he will pursue a second term in the coming days. The current president's path to victory is unlikely to be an easy one. Last week, after two months of speculation, highly respected conservative cleric Ebrahim Raisi announced his own candidacy.
The rise of Raisi's profile over the past year, along with his unmatched potential to unite the conservative vote — especially if the election moves to a runoff — has positioned him as a potent threat to Rouhani, though a string of successes for the president during his first term mean the race is expected to be competitive. The biggest policy implications of vote are likely to felt in the economic realm, not when it comes to domestic social reforms or Tehran's foreign policy. But regardless of who prevails, Iran appears to be adopting a somewhat more cautious approach to its relations with the West.
A Two Man Race?
Raisi's announcement to run came during a convention of conservatives with the Popular Front of Islamic Revolution Forces, a political movement known by its Persian acronym JAMNA. Joining Raisi in the bloc's finalists for the nomination are former conservative lawmaker Alireza Zakani, Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, former Vice President Mehrdad Bazrpash, and former Education Minister Hamid-Reza Haji Babaee. However, Ghalibaf has already announced that he will not run in the elections, instead uniting behind a different candidate. Of the four remaining JAMNA contenders, Raisi is considered nearly a lock for the nomination.
Simply put, Raisi would not be running if he did not have tacit approval — if not a direct request to do so — from Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Raisi's political star has been steadily rising since March 2016, when he was picked to run Astan Quds Razavi, one of Iran's wealthiest and most prominent charities. The appointment fueled speculation that Raisi is even being groomed as Ali Khamenei's eventual replacement as supreme leader. Since then, Raisi's stature has only increased; 50 of the 88 members of Iran's Assembly of Experts signed a petition supporting his candidacy in the race for the presidency, and conservative Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi — not a JAMNA backer — has also endorsed him.
Rouhani and Raisi are not the only contenders. Former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in particular, has the ability to complicate the race
. Though rifts between the former and the clerical establishment deepened during his second term, he remains broadly popular, and his endorsement of his former vice president, Hamid Baghaei, may prevent the election from becoming a two-man race. (Notably, in 2013, the preferred candidates of Ahmadinejad's supporters were disqualified by Iran's Guardian Council, and Baghaei himself was arrested in 2015 on corruption charges. The council will decide whether to approve the current crop of candidates in the next two weeks.)