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Iranians Will Choose From 7 Presidential Candidates Friday


Iranians head to the poll on Friday to elect a new president. The vote comes after what has been a rough year. The country has faced increasing economic decline amid tough U.S. sanctions, and it's still struggling under the coronavirus.

NPR's Peter Kenyon joins us now from Istanbul. Good morning, Peter.


DETROW: Peter, who are the candidates the Iranians can choose from?

KENYON: Well, there are seven, and that was whittled down from hundreds who applied to run. Well, I guess that's a bit more than whittling. A hardline committee vets the candidates every election year, and they approved seven, including a couple of reformers. But if there is an estimated frontrunner, it's a man named Ebrahim Raisi. He's a hardline cleric and judge. He was associated, controversially, with mass killings of dissidents in the 1980s. He ran before in 2013 but lost to Hassan Rouhani. This time, hardliners seem determined to see him take the presidency. Some analysts point out that given Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's age, this could be his last president, and he has definitely endorsed Raisi's candidacy.

DETROW: So seven pre-approved candidates. The current president, Hassan Rouhani, is not among them. Is he out of the picture?

KENYON: He is. He's finishing his second term. He's term-limited. He can't run this year. He started out in his first term quite strong. He succeeded in getting many sanctions lifted with that nuclear agreement in 2015. But then after President Trump pulled out of that deal and reimposed sanctions, hardliner grumbling increased, and voters who had turned out en masse for Rouhani in 2013 started displaying their disappointment, talking about boycotting this year's vote. There's a real sense of disillusionment with what can be accomplished at the ballot box.

Now, Rouhani, you know, was an interesting figure. Not a reformer by any means, but he was prepared to sit down and negotiate with world powers, which is not something other hardliners wanted to do. So, yes, he leaves an interesting legacy.

DETROW: What are the main issues on Iranian voters' minds?

KENYON: Well, as with many countries, the economy is No. 1 by quite a ways. Sanctions have now been in place again for going on three years. The Iranian economy is quite depressed. Iranians say even things like food and medicines, which are not technically blocked by the sanctions, are hard to come by. And at the same time, Iran was hit hard by COVID-19. Now there are news stories circulating about possibly promising vaccines home-grown, but the jury's still out on their effectiveness. And at the street level, as always, there's not a lot of trust in the government, either on COVID or the economy.

DETROW: Tricky question to ask with about 30 seconds left, but we're going to give it a try. This all, of course, comes as the U.S. is trying to resuscitate some sort of nuclear deal with Iran. How much does this election affect where that heads?

KENYON: Well, it could. The talks resume Saturday in Vienna. The negotiators seem to think they have a path, but clearly what the government thinks is going to be important - and it is certainly possible that a new hardline government could take a different view. On the other hand, the deal had been financially beneficial for Iran, so they may actually want to get it going again.

DETROW: That's NPR's Peter Kenyon in Istanbul. Thank you so much.

KENYON: Thanks, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.