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Iranians Head To Polls To Pick Next President


Iranians vote to choose a new president today at a time when people are worn out by a weak economy and a COVID outbreak. And there isn't a wide choice on the ballot. There are four candidates out of hundreds who first sought to run. A hardline former prosecutor now judge linked to executions is the front-runner. NPR's Peter Kenyon is in Tehran and joins us now. Hey, Peter.


FADEL: So, Peter, just first set the scene for us. You're out and about today. Does it feel like Election Day?

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting in non-English language).

KENYON: Well, as you can hear, there are moments of activity, like this chanting outside a polling station. Now, that turned into a kind of a competition between supporters of a couple of rival candidates. But I have to say, overall, it feels like a light version of an Iranian Election Day - no long lines with hourslong waits outside popular polling stations in Tehran. It could change. Polls are open until midnight with an option to extend at 2 a.m., but so far, I'm not seeing any reason to think that'll be necessary.

FADEL: So it doesn't sound like huge voter turnout yet. You've been talking to voters. What are they saying?

KENYON: Well, not just voters. I happened to bump into one of the candidates, not the hardline favorite, Ebrahim Raisi, but Abdolnaser Hemmati. He's a former central bank governor. And Hemmati said he hopes people do turn out to vote today despite calls to boycott the election. Here's a bit of what he said.

ABDOLNASER HEMMATI: (Non-English language spoken).

KENYON: He said he hopes people do cast their ballots. People need to show they're serious about elections. And he hopes voters will show up later in the day. Now, I also met a woman, Taharai (ph) - she gave her first name - who said she's 60 years old and is looking for a president to get a grip on inflation. Here's what she said.

TAHARAI: (Through interpreter) I want to have a president who cares for the people, to controls the prices, price hikes and do not follow the foot steps of former President Rouhani.

KENYON: Control the price hikes - now, that's something I've heard every day of this trip. Of course, American sanctions are playing a role in that, but the economy has been a huge theme throughout the campaign.

FADEL: So let's talk about the current president, Hassan Rouhani. He was seen as a pragmatist, the man who led the country into the nuclear deal with world powers hoping for sanctions relief. So tell us a bit about the man Iranians expect to replace Rouhani.

KENYON: Well, Raisi is known to Iranians. He ran four years ago, but he lost to Rouhani. He's a hardline cleric, and as a judge, he had a role in ordering mass executions of dissident prisoners in the late 1980s. That has dogged him in some circles. He's under U.S. sanctions. But he is the preferred candidate of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. He has a commanding lead. Three rival candidates dropped out of the race earlier this week. Now, some have tried to rally a challenge around Hemmati, but it would be seen as a huge upset if he wins.

FADEL: So if Raisi becomes president, what would that mean for U.S.-Iran relations, things like the 2015 nuclear agreement?

KENYON: Well, Raisi may not be in any rush to pull out of the deal, but he doesn't want to necessarily show that to his hardline supporters. He could say there's a transition period here until August. So he could say if it happens before then, he could say, well, it was Rouhani's doing, not mine.

FADEL: NPR's Peter Kenyon, thanks.

KENYON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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