May 18 (UPI) -- Iranians began voting Friday in a presidential election between reformist President Hassan Rouhani and Ebharim Raisi that is closer than expected, two opinion polls indicate.
Although power in Iran rests largely in the ayatollah, Ali Khamenei, the outcome of the presidential race could lead to a more conservative government and jeopardy of the 2015 nuclear arms deal that has limited Iran as a Middle Eastern power.
Although an incumbent, Rouhani, 68, is running like an outsider. He has called for more freedoms, including those of the press and of association, and middle-class Iranians fear his defeat could slide the country back to the control of hardline clerics.
A poll conducted May 7-8 by the Iranian Students Polling Agency gave Rouhani 42 percent of likely voters' support, followed by conservative cleric Ebrahim Raisi with 27 percent. Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, who has since dropped out of the race, received 25 percent. Another survey, taken by International Perspectives on Public Opinion between May 8-11, showed Rouhani with 29 percent, Ghalibaf with 12 percent and Raisi with 11 percent; 28 percent of respondents were undecided.
Rouhani won a tight presidential election in 2013 by promoting the arms deal, and liberalization. Most sanctions against Iran were lifted in exchange for a reduction in its nuclear arms capacity, and the economy grew by 7 percent in 2016, although most of the gain came from oil export revenues. Unemployment remains high at 12.4 percent, and conservatives within Iran say Rouhani has looked after interests of the elite.
Raisi, as a judge in 1988, approved the execution of thousands of Iranian leftists, and would be expected to stifle dissent if elected. While reformists have lined up behind Rouhani, Ghalibaf endorsed Raisi before exiting the race.