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Conservative cleric Raisi favored to win Iran's presidential election

Iranian Judiciary chief Ebrahim Raisi is the favorite to win Friday's presidential election, a result that would reassert conservative control over all levers of power in Tehran.

Driving the news: The latest polls in Iran project a very low turnout of around 42% — a testament to the disillusionment of supporters of the reformist camp who find themselves with no candidate to vote for.

The backstory: Iran's Guardian Council disqualified all of the reformist candidates, including former parliamentary Speaker Ali Larijani, a supporter of outgoing President Hassan Rouhani and his policies. Larijani was seen as a potential front-runner.

  • Raisi is a close confidant of and potential successor to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. He has the support of most of the conservative camp, including the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
  • The least hardline candidate is former central bank governor Abdolnaser Hemmati, who has courted reformist voters with little success. Recent polls show Hemmati with less than 10% of the vote compared to around 50% for Raisi. 
  • On Wednesday, in a last-ditch effort to win the support of reformists, Hemmati announced that he would appoint outgoing Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to a top position if elected.

Between the lines: Raz Zimmt, an Iran expert at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, told me that Iranian voters aren't just disillusioned with the approved list of candidates but also with Rouhani's tenure as president.

  • “Rouhani had many ideas for domestic reforms, more liberties and less involvement of the IRGC in the country’s economy, but most were never implemented and this created great disappointment among reformists," he said.

What to watch: The elections are taking place while Iran holds indirect talks with the U.S. on a mutual return to compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal.

  • Western diplomats involved in the talks think Khamenei wants a deal in place before Raisi assumes office at the beginning of August.
  • Yes, but: Rafael Grossi, who leads the UN's nuclear watchdog, told Italian daily La Repubblica on Wednesday that it won't be possible to get a deal until a new Iranian government is formed.

What’s next: The results of the elections are expected on Friday night Iran time.

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