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A black and white choice facing Iran

Right and left are squaring off for clash that will set the course for country's future

The right and the left in Iran are squaring off for what could be a bruising confrontation next month, pitting the pragmatic and relatively moderate cleric Hassan Rouhani,  seeking a second term in the presidency, against hardline cleric Ebrahim Raisi, who represents right-wing factions opposed to reforms.

At stake are not only political and social reforms but also the pace of economic liberalisation and opening up of the oil and gas sector.

The Islamic republic, despite its reputation and some notable exceptions, has generally tended to follow a middle course. But the upcoming Rouhani-Raisi confrontation seems to offer the Iranian electorate one of its starkest choices since 1979.

Rouhani is an establishment man, who has shown a willingness in the past to be as tough as necessary to preserve what he sees as the gains of the revolution. But he has also made it clear Iranian politics and society have to evolve and adapt in order to survive.

Having dedicated most of his first term from 2013 to securing a nuclear deal with the major powers and freeing Iran of energy sanctions, Rouhani has been working closely with Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh and others to try to revive the oil sector and kick-start the economy.

The economy, which has seen inflation slashed in recent years but unemployment still affecting perhaps a third or more of young people, is a central priority. Social freedoms for Iran’s youthful and highly-educated population have been another key concern for Rouhani.

Sympathetic critics of Rouhani’s economic policies say the government must abandon its obsession with inflation and focus on spending more and creating jobs. 

On the social front, many impatient young people complain that not much has changed since the days of the eccentric president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. 

However, the atmosphere of tolerance in Tehran and other cities has in fact been transformed in the past four years.

What Rouhani and his supporters argue is that the administration needs another four years to consolidate its gains.

And that, precisely, is what worries the hardliners, who fear a Rouhani win will so entrench nascent economic and social reforms that Iran’s destiny will be set for the foreseeable future.

Parliamentary elections two years ago showed the hardliners were losing the argument. And, if Rouhani gets a second term in office, that will be seen as the beginning of the end for ideologues.

The trouble for the hardliners is that they had trouble coming up with a plausible candidate capable of beating Rouhani. 

That explains the sudden and unexpected emergence of Raisi, whose political career has ranged from acting as one of four judges at summary execution trials in 1988 to prosecutor general. 

Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei last year picked him to head the country’s biggest and richest religious foundation of Astan Qods Razavi at the Imam Reza shrine in Mashad – amid widespread speculation Raisi is being groomed to step into Khamenei’s shoes when the latter dies.

Of course, if Raisi loses the presidency vote, it means he is also out of the contest for eventual supreme leadership. 

The conclusion for many in Tehran is that the hardliners, including presumably Khamenei, are either so desperate to stop Rouhani that they are putting the supreme leadership succession plans in jeopardy, or that they have a plan to ensure Raisi does not lose the election.

Rouhani remains the odds-on favourite for 19 May. But the opening political salvos so far in Tehran are not too reassuring.