Iranian Presidential candidate Ebrahim Raisi gestures during a campaign meeting at the Mosalla mosque in Tehran, Iran, May 16, 2017. REUTERS

May 17, 2017

Who will win Iran's presidential election?

Iran’s presidential elections take place on May 19. And though the race has become closer and more interesting than anyone might have expected, incumbent President Hassan Rouhani will still likely win re-election.

Why does Rouhani look like a shoo-in? First, he’s polled comfortably above his conservative opponents throughout the campaign, even though his support has softened. Polling also indicates that even consolidation on the conservative side of the ballot won’t give hardliner (and Supreme Leader favorite) Ebrahim Raisi the necessary votes to edge him out. Second, the economy and unemployment are the most significant electoral issues for Iranians. Raisi and his conservative camp’s economic platform, which does little more than promise higher cash subsidies, is weak.  (Rouhani has repeatedly reminded the Iranian people of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s destructive use of these subsidies.) Third, Rouhani will benefit from a solid turnout from the moderate and reformist support base. Reformist leadership has been vocal in its support for the current president, as have several imprisoned leaders of the 2009 Green Movement and former President Mohammad Khatami.

Bottom line? The conservatives are habitually unable to unify in Iran's 2017 Presidential ElectionsFor CTP coverage of the elections, see: and presidential elections.  This inability has cost them the last several elections, including the 2013 presidential race. But don’t stop reading here. Let’s focus for a moment on Raisi, the conservative candidate.

Raisi has close ties to Iran’s Judiciary and security apparatus, minimal executive experience, and a very bloody past. He has benefited from unprecedented support from conservative leaders and the IRGC including the widespread use of social media and high-level endorsements in the last few days aimed at shifting the election in his favor. Then there’s the withdrawal of Tehran mayor Mohammad Ghalibaf just days ago; Ghalibaf had threatened to split the conservative vote, and his exit from the stage is a testament to the hardliners’ desire to win this race.  If Raisi is able to gain momentum heading into the constitutionally-mandated media blackout starting Thursday, Rouhani may have difficulty reversing it. Also, the IRGC is lobbying to station IRGC and paramilitary Basij members at polling stations in Tehran on election day, likely in an attempt to intimidate Rouhani supporters.

Of course, the conservatives could interfere to ensure a Raisi victory, but would need the Supreme Leader’s approval first. Khamenei’s most obvious reason for installing Raisi as president – other than his preferred isolationist economic policy and rhetorical and diplomatic aggression towards the United States -- would be to cement his place as the next Supreme Leader.

Yet, as the regime knows all too well, the price of such interference could be another round of protests, reminiscent of those which followed the rigged 2009 vote for then President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Stealing the election from Rouhani would also be harder to achieve this time, as the current president controls much of the structure that will administer the elections and oversee vote counting.

In the end, Khamenei can likely live with either outcome. The only thing he could not live with is significant internal protests. If Rouhani is elected, Khamenei could curtail his power and reduce his internal influence and preserve his options for the next round, the fight to be his successor. If Raisi wins, he looks set to succeed the elderly and ailing Leader.  But at the end of the day, there’s really only one sure thing: No matter who succeeds at the ballot, it is Ayatollah Ali Khamenei who will always be, in every sense, Iran’s Supreme Leader.