Iran's incumbent president — the man behind the historic nuclear deal — appears poised to win a second term on Friday, but analysts are not discounting a surprise victory by the conservative candidate believed to have the supreme leader's backing.
A vote to reinstall President Hassan Rouhani is seen as an endorsement for building ties with the international community, while an upset result would portend a more inward-looking Iran and put a hard-line administration on a collision course with President Donald Trump.
"The fate of the 2015 nuclear deal potentially hangs in the balance depending on the outcome of the election," Helima Croft, global head of commodities strategy at RBC Capital Markets, said in a research note.
The accord between Iran and six world powers, including the United States, lifted crippling economic sanctions on the country in exchange for limitations on its nuclear program. Since it took effect, Iran has hiked oil output by about a million barrels a day and lined up European and Asian oil majors eager to invest in its energy industry.
The United States maintains sanctions on Iran over its ballistic missile test, human rights record and support for U.S.-designated terror groups. Trump this month ordered a review to determine whether the nuclear deal brokered by the Obama administration is in the country's best interest.
The "election of Donald Trump has significantly elevated the risk of a U.S. sanctions snapback that could further deter foreign energy firms from investing in the country and hinder Iran's ability to place its barrels abroad," Croft said.
The projected margin of victory for Rouhani over his conservative rival, the influential cleric Ebrahim Raisi, widened after another right-leaning candidate, Tehran Mayor Mohammad Qalibaf, withdrew from the race this week, according to a poll by IPPO, which is viewed as one of the most reliable pollsters.
But there is a big caveat: Half of the respondents in the IPPO poll either said they were undecided or declined to disclose their choice.
There are other warning signs for Rouhani. Out of the top three candidates,
The results "point to Iranian's discontent with the status quo under Rouhani, even as election polls place him in the lead," Babel Street said in a report.
Social media analysis by the Eurasia Group shows Rouhani leading on momentum, but
Qalibaf's exit gives Rouhani a clearer path to victory by lowering the odds he'll face a runoff election, according to Eurasia Group. The perception that
But Eurasia Group nevertheless lowered the probability of Rouhani's re-election to 60 percent based on growing efforts by conservative elites and security forces loyal to Khamenei to mobilize support for
Rouhani himself took the country by surprise in 2013 after a late-stage surge. But he now faces the burden of defending his record. The economy has returned to growth and inflation has stabilized during his tenure, but unemployment remains high, particularly among youth.
"Given the uneven quality of Iranian polling,
Meanwhile, Rouhani gave a strong performance in a recent debate focused on the economy, Kupchan noted, and the president has even alluded to
But at least one analyst believes the focus on the economy may be overdone. Alex Vatanka,
"That's in essence what the average voter in Iran wants: someone to come in and shake up the system. Rouhani has not been convincing them," he said.