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World

Nuclear issue key as Iran readies for Rouhani replacement

  • A prominent conservative, Raisi took more than 38 percent of votes in the 2017 presidential election won by Rouhani.
25 Feb 2021

TEHRAN: Iran will vote in June for a successor to President Hassan Rouhani and his moderate-reformist government, but politics in the country is dominated by the nuclear issue and no frontrunner has emerged.

Several conservative heavyweights are thought to be considering running in the key June 18 race, with the winner to help set the direction of the Islamic republic.

"For the moment, the electoral atmosphere remains cold," political analyst Amir Mohebian told AFP, adding that when politicians "try to warm it up, people are not paying attention."

Following the election of US President Joe Biden, Washington, European powers and Tehran are trying to salvage the troubled 2015 nuclear accord, which granted Iran international sanctions relief in return for restrictions on its nuclear programme.

The accord has been nearing collapse since Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew in 2018 and reimposed crippling sanctions as part of a "maximum pressure" campaign against Tehran.

Rouhani, who bet on engagement with the West when Barack Obama was president only to see tensions soar under Trump, has shown a willingness to engage with the incoming Biden administration.

But Rouhani will step down after completing the second of his two consecutive four-year terms allowed under the constitution, and, while Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei remains in charge, the new president will direct his own policy course.

After a record 57 percent of Iranians stayed away from the February 2020 legislative elections, Khamenei recently called for "enthusiastic and revolutionary" participation to elect an "effective" president.

The candidate nomination period runs from May 11 to 15, but so far just one has announced his intention to run, the conservative former defence minister Hossein Dehghan.

In mid-February, the Combatant Clergy Association, a powerful conservative group, said it would back the candidacy of Ebrahim Raisi, Iran's judiciary chief, although he himself has not yet officially declared he is running.

A prominent conservative, Raisi took more than 38 percent of votes in the 2017 presidential election won by Rouhani.

Another potential candidate is conservative heavyweight and parliament speaker Mohammad-Bagher Ghalibaf.

He was recently accused of starting campaigning early, under the cover of numerous official trips across Iran.

"The conservatives' plan is to agree on a single candidate," said Hamidreza Taraqi, a top official in the Islamic Coalition Party, part of the conservative alliance that won the legislative elections last year.

But Mehdi Rahmanian, from the reformist Shargh daily newspaper, argues that the conservatives "will certainly not reach" such a deal.

Multiple conservatives could split the vote, giving a helping hand to a moderate candidate, such as former parliament speaker Ali Larijani, who some say seems likely to be keen to run.

Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who has yet to make a clear signal of his intentions, has also been mentioned as a possible moderate contender.