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The nuclear deal takes center stage as Iran’s election campaign gets underway

Iran’s short, intense presidential campaign kicks off Friday with the first televised debate featuring six candidates in a race widely seen as a referendum on whether Iranians feel they have benefited from the nuclear deal that took effect last year.


The May 19 vote will see the moderate incumbent, President Hassan Rouhani, facing off against conservative and reformist challengers, including a hard-line cleric with backing from the country’s religious establishment.


Iran’s influential Guardian Council, a body of senior clerics and jurists appointed by the supreme leader, vets the candidates each election. This year, Rouhani’s approved challengers include the hard-line mayor of Tehran, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf; a conservative former culture minister, Mostafa Mirsalim; Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri, a moderate; and former vice president Mostafa Hashemitaba, a reformist.


Also on the list, which was whittled down from the 1,600 or so who initially registered, is Ebrahim Raisi, a confidant of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the man now viewed as Rouhani’s main rival. When the Guardian Council weighed in last week, it disqualified former president and populist firebrand Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.


A supporter hands out pictures of cleric Ebrahim Raisi, a conservative presidential candidate backed by Iran’s religious establishment, at a campaign rally in Tehran on April 26. (Ebrahim Noroozi/AP)
Raisi, a cleric with a bloody past as one of several judges who oversaw mass executions of political prisoners in 1988, has been mentioned as a possible successor to Khamenei. The supreme leader dictates Iran’s military and foreign policy, but whoever wins the presidency could nevertheless ultimately determine the tone of Tehran’s engagement with the world and with a more confrontational Trump administration.


The race was expected to be a cakewalk for Rouhani, who oversaw the negotiations that lifted many sanctions against Iran in exchange for constraints on its nuclear program. Most Iranian presidents have coasted to second terms.


But the moderate leader is facing head winds in the wake of the deal he championed, and many Iranians say their living standards have not improved as they expected.


Click here to read more about the elections.