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Iran election: How will it shape Tehran's relations with the West?

Islamic hard-liner Ebrahim Raisi is viewed as the favorite to win the presidential election. But given the nation's dire economic straits, he is expected to continue Tehran's current approach to foreign policy.

Ebrahim Raisi next to the Iranian flag

Ebrahim Raisi is among five candidates vying for the presidency

Iran's current chief justice, Ebrahim Raisi, is widely expected to secure victory and become the Islamic Republic's eighth president in Friday's election.

The ultraconservative politician — who is notorious for his involvement as a prosecutor in the execution of thousands of political prisoners in the late 1980s — is no stranger to Iranians.

Raisi has been the head of the nation's judiciary since 2019. He will need to secure an absolute majority to win the presidential election in the first round itself. 

Given that many Iranians are planning to stay away from the ballot box — recent surveys anticipate a historically low turnout of around 40% — it's conceivable that Raisi secures the votes he needs for an absolute majority.

Polls suggest that only 23 million of the 59 million eligible voters plan to cast their votes. To emerge victorious, it would be enough for Raisi if 12 million Iranians backed him for the presidency.

If no candidate wins a clear majority on Friday, the two with the most votes will go head-to-head in a runoff a week later, on June 25.

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Election amid economic woes

Friday's vote will choose a successor to Iran's moderate President Hassan Rouhani, who cannot run again after serving two consecutive four-year terms. He leaves office in August.

Ultimate power in Iran lies with the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, but the president has significant influence on issues from industrial policy to foreign affairs.

The election comes at a critical juncture for Iran. The nation's economy is struggling to cope with the harsh US sanctions imposed by the administration of former President Donald Trump, after Washington left the international nuclear deal struck by Tehran and world powers in 2015.

The revival of sanctions plunged the economy into recession, and Rouhani came under fire from ultraconservatives for having trusted the West.

The country of 83 million is currently blocked by the US from selling its oil to and trading with much of the world.

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An unknown figure on the world stage

Raisi belongs to the ultraconservative camp that most deeply distrusts the United States and has harshly criticized Rouhani since the nuclear deal began to unravel.

"Many observers expect Raisi to win the election," said Sanam Vakil, deputy director and senior research fellow for the Middle East and North Africa Program at the London-based think tank Chatham House.

She believes his election victory could put Europe in a difficult position, because the EU and the US have imposed sanctions on Raisi for his role in the human rights violations that happened in Iran during the nationwide anti-government protests in 2019.

Furthermore, Vakil pointed out that Raisi is an unknown figure for the international community, and his positions on important regional and global issues remain unclear.

"That's why I think that European countries, particularly Germany, France and the United Kingdom, are going to be quite cautious, but probably more united," she said.

Will Raisi continue Rouhani's policies?

Even though Raisi had sharply criticized the 2015 international nuclear deal, during the election campaign — like all other candidates — he stressed his intention to abide by the agreement.

He appears to understand that as president his policies will have to take into account the nation's poor economic situation, which would improve if the United States returned to the deal and lifted sanctions. 

Mohammad Javad Zarif  foreign minister under incumbent President Rouhani, is currently leading the Iranian delegation at the international talks in Vienna to revive the nuclear deal.

So far, the Iranians have only held indirect negotiations with US diplomats, via EU representatives.

Many observers, however, believe Zarif will conclude the talks before the next Iranian president takes office in August. Iranian media reports also suggest that Zarif has been tasked with lobbying on the sidelines of the talks in Vienna to have Raisi's name removed from the EU and US sanctions lists.

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'Iran policy must be based on realism and values'

A commitment to the nuclear agreement alone would not be enough for the global community, said Bijan Djir-Sarai, a German lawmaker and member of the parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee in Berlin.

"The Iran nuclear deal only makes sense if additional agreements on, for example, Iran's role in the region and Iran's missile program are also adopted," he said.

"I would recommend to the European Union, and also to the German government, to pursue a policy toward Iran that is guided not only by interests, but also by values," he added. "It would require addressing Iran's destructive role in the region as well as condemning the blatant human rights violations in the country."

This article was translated from German.