In this May 17, 2017 photo, a supporter of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani flashes a victory sign as she holds a poster of Rouhani during a street campaign ahead of the May 19 presidential election in downtown Tehran, Iran. President Hassan Rouhani, a moderate, is seeking re-election in a vote that will largely serve as a referendum on his outreach to the West, which culminated in the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers. (Ebrahim Noroozi / AP)
TEHRAN — Iranian President Hassan Rouhani staked his political future on opening Iran ever so slightly to the outside world and overcoming hard-liners' opposition to secure a historic nuclear deal in exchange for relief from crippling sanctions.
No incumbent president has failed to win re-election since 1981, when Ayatollah Ali Khamenei became president himself
He'll soon find out if voters think it's enough to keep him in the job.
The 68-year-old cleric, a moderate within Iran's political system, has history on his side as Iranians vote for president Friday. No incumbent president has failed to win re-election since 1981, when Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the current supreme leader and most powerful man in Iran, became president himself.
Political analysts and the scant polling data that's available suggest Rouhani will come out on top among the four candidates left running, though an outright win is by no means assured. Failure to secure a majority Friday would send the two top vote-getters into a runoff a week later.
His supporters streamed into downtown Tehran streets thick with police for rallies that lasted into the early hours Thursday, just ahead of a 24-hour no-campaigning period before the vote.
The rallies were largely peaceful even as Rouhani supporters faced off against smaller crowds supporting his main rival, hard-liner Ebrahim Raisi, though police rushed reinforcements to break up Rouhani rallies that grew large enough to block traffic.
Working against Rouhani is a sense among many Iranians that the 2015 nuclear deal, which saw Iran accept limits on its atomic energy program, has failed to deliver an economic windfall.
Although nuclear-related sanctions were lifted because of the deal, other US and other international sanctions remain in effect.
Unemployment, meanwhile, remains stuck in the double digits, with nearly a third of Iranian youth out of work, according to the International Monetary Fund.
Rouhani's stiffest challenge comes from Raisi, a law professor and former prosecutor who heads an influential religious charitable foundation with vast business holdings. He is seen by many as close to Khamenei, and has even been talked about as a possible successor to him. Khamenei has stopped short of endorsing anyone.
Raisi won the support of two major clerical bodies and promised to boost welfare payments to the poor. His populist posture, anti-corruption rhetoric and get-tough reputation are likely to energize conservative rural and working-class voters.
In a bid to woo younger voters, he has even turned to appearing in a viral video next to a tattooed, once-underground rapper named Amir Tataloo — despite his own history of supporting the cancellation of concerts on moral grounds.
Mostafa Hashemitaba, a pro-reform figure who previously ran for president in 2001, and Mostafa Mirsalim, a former culture minister, also remain in the race.
The ruling system put in place after the 1979 Islamic Revolution combines conservative clerical oversight and state control over large parts of the economy with tightly regulated but still hotly contested elections for key government posts. All candidates for elected office must be vetted, a process that excludes anyone calling for radical change, along with most reformists. No woman has been approved to run for president.
People watch a televised debate between the Iranian presidential candidates for the May 19 elections, at one of electoral campaign offices of President Hassan Rouhani, seen in posters in background, in northern Tehran, Iran, May, 5, 2017. (Vahid Salemi / AP)
Under Iran's system, the president is subordinate only to the supreme leader, who is chosen by a clerical panel and has the ultimate say over all matters of state. The presidency is still a powerful post, with considerable influence over domestic policy, the state bureaucracy and foreign affairs.
A victory for Rouhani could lead to a further loosening of limits on personal freedom, while a hard-line win could set Iran up for a renewed bout of confrontation with the West at a time when U.S. President Donald Trump has called for a tougher line on Iran.
Whoever wins Friday's vote could help shape the choice of the next supreme leader, and in turn the direction of the country.
Khamenei is 77 years old and only the second person in Iran's history to hold the top job. He underwent prostate surgery in 2014, prompting speculation about his health.
The president is one of three members on a temporary council that takes over the supreme leader's duties should his post become vacant until a successor is named by the panel known as the Assembly of Experts. Rouhani and Raisi both sit in that assembly.