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Iranians Decide Between Centrist Incumbent And Hardliner For President


Iranians stood in long lines in cities and villages across the country today to vote for a president. It's a limited field of candidates. They were approved by the conservative clerical leaders. But voters still face a stark choice between the main contenders - their current centrist president, Hassan Rouhani, and a hardliner who's gained momentum.

NPR's Peter Kenyon joins us from Tehran. And Peter, just to start, is this election being looked at as essentially a referendum on Rouhani's first term in office?

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Well, that's a large part of it, certainly. Rouhani made some pretty grand promises for economic improvement with his plan of re-engaging with the outside world, but he really hasn't been able to deliver, certainly not to ordinary Iranians. But a number of people told me today that this really large turnout we've been seeing, requiring multiple extensions of the polling hours, really has to do with something else, with people voting against the cleric Ebrahim Raisi. He's the hardliner. And they want to vote against a return to these kind of hardline religious restrictions that a young population here has really gotten tired of.

There are also strong believers, though, in this Islamic Revolution certainly still in the countryside, also in conservative parts of the cities. I met one Raisi supporter. His name is Hussein Ragani. And he calls this vote a referendum on the Islamic Revolution of 1979, plain and simple. Here's a bit of what he had to say.

HUSSEIN RAGANI: The people of Iran are very dedicated to the revolution. If you don't go in the right direction of the revolution, people kick you out, whether you're a president or anybody else.

KENYON: But most of the people I spoke with since I've gotten here have told me they're voting for Rouhani not because he's done a terrific job but because they really don't want to see a hardliner back in office.

CORNISH: You know, Americans mostly hear about the nuclear deal that Iran made with the U.S. and other Western powers. That was the 2015 agreement to limit the country's nuclear program in exchange for relief from economic sanctions. But in Iran, how much of a factor is this in the election?

KENYON: Well, it is, especially on this sanctions factor. Although there is some national pride involved. And the sanctions have been lifted. The economic argument won the day, but now Iranians are saying, where are the benefits? And Raisi has been attacking Rouhani for being weak in the negotiations, saying engaging doesn't work. So the deal has been a factor, but even Raisi says we have to respect its terms.

CORNISH: So how might this election change Iran's relations with the U.S.?

KENYON: Well, certainly the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei - he's going to have the final word on foreign policy especially. But some say if Rouhani wins, he might bring a certain stability, some continuity in the face of this hostile rhetoric we're hearing from Washington, from Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. A Raisi victory, on the other hand, with his rejection of all things Western, could send things downhill. And no matter who wins, in the short term, people here think ties are going to be strained.

CORNISH: In the meantime, is the vote expected to be close?

KENYON: Well, no incumbent Iranian president has ever lost a bid for a second term. Rouhani supporters expect a comfortable win. Others say it will be close. Now, if Raisi wins after trailing throughout, there could be problems. Security forces are on alert. They don't want a repeat of 2009's mass demonstrations. But there is also a third possibility. If neither candidate gets a clear majority, there's going to be a runoff next week.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Peter Kenyon in Tehran. Peter, thanks so much.

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