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Iran’s presidential vote is now a two-man race. Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf’s 11th-hour withdrawal means that incumbent Hassan Rouhani will face the 56-year-old Ebrahim Raisi, a close associate of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and a man who was at the heart of the decision to mass execute political dissidents in the late 1980s.
Qalibaf not only withdrew from the race; he endorsed Raisi and is now campaigning on his behalf. The great unknown is how much Qalibaf’s populism (he was widely believed to have modeled his campaign on Donald Trump’s) will benefit Raisi, a drab figure who has emerged from the darkest corners of the regime to become the consensus candidate of the establishment’s hard-line camp despite very limited popular appeal. One possibility is that much of the populist vote behind Qalibaf — which, if his past campaigns are any indication, could be around 15 percent — could move toward Rouhani.
But the pro-Rouhani camp hasn’t been treating Qalibaf’s sudden exit as an opportunity to win votes, but as a sign that votes may not be the deciding factor in the election. It increasingly seems that Iran’s unelected but dominant centers of power — the Office of the Supreme Leader, the generals from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and the wider security-intelligence apparatus — have consolidated behind Raisi and are determined to manufacture a victory for him.
This alignment poses a steep challenge for Rouhani. But the incumbent president can still bank on deep popular anger against the shadowy and corrupt regime circles that both Raisi and Qalibaf represent.