5 Questions About Iran's Upcoming Elections

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani delivers a speech during an appearance at Asia Society in September 2013.

In Iran's political system, ultimate authority rests with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, not with the country's president. But that doesn't mean the presidency isn't important. The results of the upcoming election will, among other things, serve as a useful barometer of public opinion in the crucial Central Asian country.

Here's what you need to know about the Iranian election ahead of the vote on May 19.

Who is running for president?

Each candidate needs to be approved by Iran’s Guardian Council, which last week announced six candidates: incumbent President Hassan Rouhani; Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri; Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, the current mayor of Tehran; Ebrahim Raisi, a former attorney general; as well as two minor candidates in Mostafa Hashemitaba and Mostafa Mir-Salim.

“This is more or less the field that we’ve expected,” said Sanam Vakil, an associate fellow at the Chatham House.

What about Mahmoud Ahmadinejad?

The former president surprised Iran analysts by submitting his candidacy, but nobody — probably including Ahmadinejad himself — expected the Guardian Council to approve him. That's because Supreme Leader Khamenei had publicly advised him not to run.

What were Ahmadenijad's motives, then? “It’s possible that he did this just to build political capital,” said Ali Vaez, senior Iran analyst at the Crisis Group in Washington. “Being seen as anti-establishment could increase his popularity. He may just invest in his future.”

What do the candidates stand for?

President Rouhani and Vice President Jahangiri are both considered moderates. Rouhani’s big achievement in his first term is the controversial nuclear deal with the United States (more on that below).

Ghalibaf and Raisi both belong to the conservative camp, though there are significant differences. “It’s not surprising that the conservatives were unable to rally around a single candidate,” said Vaez.

Raisi is also considered to be one of the top candidates to eventually succeed Ayatollah Khamenei as the Supreme Leader. However, he is not well known and doesn't have much of a track record.

It’s widely believed that Jahangiri will drop out of the race in a few weeks and endorse Rouhani. The two conservative candidates may also eventually join forces, but it’s less clear if that will happen.

Is there a front-runner?

Iranian elections are famously unpredictable. If it’s a three-way race (with Jahangiri dropping out), Rouhani is the favorite — but not by a big margin: Vaez gives him a 55 percent chance of winning.

Hossein Rassam, a London-based analyst, points out that the electorate has become more politically fluid. “People’s main concerns are economic, and they may vote not for the candidate they agree with politically, but the one they feel can create most jobs and growth.”

Rassam also says that Rouhani isn’t necessarily a bad choice for Ayatollah Khamenei’s hardliners: “He can be their punchbag for internal failures, but continue to pave the way for engagement with the world.”

Wasn’t the nuclear deal supposed to bring back growth and jobs?

That was Rouhani’s promise. And while there has been some economic recovery, its effects have been limited so far. A recent poll conducted by a Canadian firm found that 72 percent of Iranians feel their lives have not improved as a result of the deal — something that could hurt Rouhani.

But Vaez argues that while Iranians would like to see more growth, they still support the deal in general: “They know that the alternative would be more sanctions, which won’t help the economy.”

If Raisi really is slated to become the next supreme leader, isn’t it a risk if he runs and then loses?

According to Vaez, Raisi fits the profile for a successor of Khamenei in at least two ways: He was a student of Khamenei and also hails from Mashad. “Most importantly, he doesn’t have a network and a constituency yet. This would ensure the office of the current supreme leader to continue to exert influence in a transition period.”

A humiliating defeat in the polls might indeed hurt Raisi. But the presidential race is also a good chance for him to raise his profile, says Vakil: “Many Iranians don’t know who he is.”