What are Iranians voting for on Friday?
Iranians will hit the polls on Friday May 19 to vote in the country's 12th presidential election with results due to be announced on Saturday May 20. Given that the field of candidates has narrowed in recent weeks, it is not expected that a second round of voting will be needed, however, if no candidate is able to secure a majority, a final round will take place on May 26. Voters will also choose members of Iran's City and Village Councils in separate elections on Friday.
Will turnout matter?
More than 56 million Iranians are eligible to vote, according to Iran's Interior Ministry. Turnout in the 2013 election reached nearly 73 percent with incumbent President Hassan Rouhani sweeping to victory with nearly 51 percent of the vote. Historical data have demonstrated that reformists stand a better chance of winning the higher the turnout.
Who are the main contenders?
A shortlist of 6 candidates was announced on April 20 by the Guardian Council, an appointed and constitutionally mandated 12-person council with significant domestic power and influence, which is responsible for overseeing election processes in Iran.
Two contenders have since dropped out, leaving a field consisting of President Rouhani, Ebrahim Raisi, who has served in various roles at the Iranian Judiciary, Mostafa Aqa-Mirsalim, an existing member of Iran's Expedience Council and former vice president Mostafa Hashemi-Taba.
In reality, the vote is expected to boil down to a two-horse race between Rouhani and Raisi, with the former representing the more pro-reform camp and his rival standing on behalf of hardliners.
President Rouhani is Iran's seventh president and has been in the role since 2013. He is viewed as a pragmatic and moderate reformist and likely to secure the majority of the votes from progressives and the middle class. Raisi is said to be backed by Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as well as the likely pick of the country's powerful Revolutionary Guards and clergy.
What are the key issues?
The economy is this election's pivotal issue with widespread disappointment that the nuclear deal signed in 2015 has not brought the anticipated boost to ordinary lives of Iranians. President Rouhani contends that the seeds of the deal have been planted but need time to grow, however, a population struggling with an unemployment rate of nearly 13 percent and youth joblessness sitting above 30 percent, is losing patience. Gross domestic product (GDP) growth has underwhelmed, with the World Bank estimating that the 2016 annual increase came in at 6.4 percent – a big improvement on the negative 2 percent rate achieved in 2015 but still below citizens' hopes. The anticipated flood of foreign investment has also failed to materialize.
How could the result impact the nuclear agreement and sanctions?
As it currently stands, all candidates have vowed to continue abiding by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the nuclear deal signed in 2015 in which Iran agreed to rein in elements of its nuclear program in exchange for partial sanctions relief from the U.S. and the European Union (EU).
Yet, the candidates' post-election commitment cannot be counted on, particularly if the country sees a win from hardliner Raisi, which would have significant implications for Iran's relationship with the U.S., according to Richard Mallinson, geopolitical analyst at Energy Aspects.
"We already have a Trump administration taking a notably different tone than the Obama administration. It hasn't yet torn up the Iran deal…but still we've got the sanctions under that deal being put under review by the State Department, we've got new sanctions being imposed for missile tests, we've got much tougher language coming out of the U.S.," he explained on CNBC's Squawk Box on Friday.
"If you then have a tougher voice in Tehran, I think that's going to increase the pace at which tensions escalate," he added.
Every 90 days, the U.S. president must certify for Congress that Iran is fully compliant with the JCPOA to ensure that the economic sanctions can continue to be waivered. Trump's enthusiasm for the deal (the destruction of which he has previously described as his "number one priority") could further diminish if the new Iranian leadership moves forward with a steelier stance.
Will the oil market move on the result?
Since the signing of the JCPOA, Iran has been able to more than double its supply of oil to the market so fears that the deal could be vulnerable post-election has some fearing for Iran's ongoing ability to supply at this higher output level.
However, calls that a Raisi win will push the oil price (currently hovering around $50 per barrel) back towards $60 are ambitious, says Mallinson.
"I don't think it does on its own. I think we're heading in that direction with the OPEC deal and rebalancing more widely but in terms of Iran the question is now really can its exports grow from current levels, can they stay at current levels or do they actually fall back?" asked Mallinson.
"If the deal collapses they fall back - not all the way down to the 2012/2015 levels but they would have to come off a bit as some European buyers would get more nervous," he asserted.