Iran vote test of Rouhani’s economy, diplomacy

NATIONAL POWER’::Hardline cleric Ebrahim Raisi is challenging the moderate Iranian president, saying that the government has put the economy in the hands of foreigners


Sat, May 20, 2017 - Page 7

Iranians yesterday poured into polling stations to give their verdict on Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and his troubled efforts to rebuild ties with the world and kick-start the struggling economy.

Rouhani, a 68-year-old moderate cleric who spearheaded a 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, has sought to frame the election as a choice between greater civil liberties and “extremism.”

However, he faces competition from hardline cleric Ebrahim Raisi, 56, who has positioned himself as a defender of the poor and called for a tougher line with the West.

“We are still not pleased with the situation, but in the four years of Rouhani there has been a relative improvement and I’m voting to keep that,” said Alireza Nikpour, a 40-year-old photographer in Tehran.

The Iranian president and his popular Minister of Foreign Affairs Mohammad Javad Zarif were swarmed by supporters as they voted early in the capital.

Together, they helped secure the landmark deal with six powers led by the US that eased crippling economic sanctions in exchange for curbs to Iran’s nuclear program.

“The enthusiastic participation of Iranians in the election reinforces our national power and security,” Rouhani said after casting his vote.

Raisi said he would stick by the nuclear deal, but pointed to a persistent economic slump as evidence Rouhani’s diplomatic efforts have failed.

“Instead of using the capable hands of our young people to resolve problems, they are putting our economy in the hands of foreigners,” he said at a closing campaign rally in second city Mashhad on Wednesday.

He has targeted working-class voters hit by high unemployment and subsidy cuts, as well as those who worry the values of the 1979 revolution are under threat.

“I think the most important factors are the ones we had a revolution for, like establishing social justice and removing poverty,” 23-year-old engineering student Mohammad Ali Serkani said at a polling station in Tehran.

“I voted Raisi, because the Rouhani government and the nuclear deal stopped a lot of research in scientific fields such as nuclear, missile and space technology,” he added.

Rouhani has said that hardliners must be kept away from Iran’s diplomatic levers at a delicate moment in relations with the US.

“One wrong decision by the president can mean war,” he said at his own Mashhad rally.

Rouhani on Wednesday gained a reprieve when Washington agreed to continue waiving nuclear-related sanctions, keeping the deal on track for now.

However, US President Donald Trump has launched a 90-day review of the accord that could see it abandoned and is visiting Iran’s bitter regional rival Saudi Arabia this weekend.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei cast his vote at his compound in Tehran just minutes after polls opened, saying: “The destiny of the country is in the hands of Iranians.”

Long queues formed at polling stations around the country after a short, but gripping campaign that has captivated the nation.

“For me, Mr Rouhani’s dialogue with the world and moderation in society are very important,” said Zahra, a 32-year-old doctoral student in food science at another Tehran polling station.

Under Rouhani’s predecessor, hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, “the sanctions really hurt us. It was hard to get lab equipment and very difficult to get visas to study abroad. Now my colleagues can travel to France and the US,” she said.

Despite the global implications, it is the economy that has dominated the campaign.

Rouhani has brought inflation down from about 40 percent when he took office in 2013, but prices are still rising by 9 percent per year.