Hardline cleric Raisi to take on Rouhani in Iran’s presidential election

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Iranian senior cleric Ebrahim Raisis speaks in the holy city of Mashhad

By Bozorgmehr Sharafedin

LONDON (Reuters) – Hardline Shi’ite cleric Ebrahim Raisi announced on Sunday he would run in Iran’s May presidential election, challenging moderate President Hassan Rouhani’s economic record and his policy of detente with the West.

The former prosecutor-general may struggle for recognition among voters though analysts say Raisi, thanks to the support he enjoys from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, could pose a real challenge to Rouhani’s bid for a second term.

Raisi has faulted Iran’s economic performance under Rouhani and his pursuit of detente that in 2015 yielded a landmark deal with world powers under which Tehran curbed its disputed nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of sanctions.

“People are asking why despite all our resources and human talents …our country is in this situation,” Raisi said in a statement published by Iranian news agencies.

“The key solution to our problems is fundamental change in the executive management of the country by the will of the people, and the formation of a competent and knowledgeable government that works day and night to bring back the dignity of the people and fights poverty and corruption.”

Rouhani won the presidency in 2013 with the backing of mainly of young people and women. He promised to bring Iran out of its international isolation and create a freer society.

But many ordinary Iranians have lost faith in him because he has not been able to improve the economy despite the lifting of sanctions in January last year under the nuclear deal.

Rights campaigners also say there have been few, if any, moves to bring about greater political and cultural freedoms.

Raisi, 57, heads Astan Qods Razavi, an organization in charge of a multibillion-dollar religious foundation that manages donations to Iran’s holiest Shi’ite Muslim shrine in the northeastern city of Mashhad.

His statement said he would not use the religious and financial advantages of this post for his electoral campaign.

If he wins the May 19 vote, Raisi would boost his chances of eventually succeeding Khamenei, who himself served two terms as president under the late founder of Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

Iranian conservatives are still trying to reach consensus on a presidential candidate, though Raisi seems well placed to become their top choice.

Raisi was named on Thursday by the Popular Front of Revolutionary Forces, the conservatives’ main coalition, as a potential contender in the Islamic Republic’s election.

(Reporting by Bozorgmehr Sharafedin; editing by Mark Heinrich)

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