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Iran's Presidential Candidate Slate Leans Heavily Toward Hard-Liners

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Iran's government has approved the final list of candidates for that country's presidential elections. Voting day is coming right up June 18. Iran has a very short campaign period. Now, the slate is seven approved candidates. It gives the upper hand to hardliners. And this election could have an impact on relations between Iran and the U.S. and whether negotiations resume on the 2015 nuclear deal. There are ongoing indirect talks in Vienna focused on restoring the talks over the deal that now-former President Trump withdrew from. NPR's Peter Kenyon is tracking all of this from Istanbul.

Hey, Peter.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.

KELLY: OK, so how's it work in Iran? How did they get down to these seven candidates?

KENYON: Well, you know, it's pretty wide open it comes to who can sign up, who can register to run for president in Iran. And this year nearly 600 people took the opportunity to sign up. But there is this group. It's called the Guardian Council. It's got 12 members, six of them appointed by the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. And that council is in charge of vetting the candidates. The criteria have never really been explained, but this year the council eliminated all but seven of those several hundred presidential hopefuls. And I guess we should note that the incumbent, Hassan Rouhani - he's finishing his second term, term-limited. He's not eligible to run this year.

KELLY: OK, so who made the cut? Who got weeded out?

KENYON: Well, a former president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was rejected again. He's becoming known as a perennial candidate. To no one's surprise, the early hardline favorite, Ebrahim Raisi, was approved. He's a conservative cleric, head of Iran's judiciary. He ran against Rouhani in 2013 and lost. He's been linked to the infamous so-called death panel that, in 1988, sent thousands of political prisoners to their death.

So that's the frontrunner. And there are six other candidates, including a former nuclear negotiator, a central bank governor. But analysts say no one - although there are prominent names in there, no one looks likely to defeat Raisi unless there's a surprise during this very short campaign. It looks like the Guardian Council wasn't taking any chances. They eliminated some very prominent officials who could've drawn votes from moderate and reformist factions - people like Ali Larijani, a former parliament speaker. He was eliminated, and so was Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri. It just seems like this is going to be run on the economy, by the way. Inflation, getting sanctions lifted - that's what we're hearing talk about so far.

KELLY: And there must be implications for turnout. If you support a moderate or reform candidate and there aren't any strong moderate or reform candidates on the slate, would you turn out to vote?

KENYON: Exactly. There are calls to boycott left and right there, and I mean that in direction, not in political leanings. There's a very good chance of a low turnout, and that does have the government worried.

KELLY: Yeah. OK, so I mentioned the nuclear deal, the 2015 nuclear deal that the U.S. pulled out of. President Biden would like to find some way to reenter a newer, stronger deal. How is all this going to play into those negotiations?

KENYON: Well, that's an interesting question. I mean, obviously, as you said, Biden wants to get back into the deal. Tehran wants the deal restored as well, but trying to get that happen on paper has not been an easy process. And the agreement is somewhat controversial in Iran. Some hardliners are pretty unhappy with it. At the moment, it looks like these talks in Vienna are going to continue unless the new government decides otherwise.

KELLY: And, I mean, what is the status of those talks? They're ongoing. Are they making progress?

KENYON: Yes. Negotiators say good progress, in fact, has been made, but still important issues that remain unresolved. The negotiators are pretty confident that they can come to an agreement among themselves, but then you have to get it endorsed by the signatory countries, including the U.S. and including Iran. There had been some hope of getting this all done before these elections. That now looks a lot less likely, so it may be a new hardline government in Tehran faced with the decision on whether to come back into the nuclear agreement.

KELLY: NPR's Peter Kenyon in Istanbul getting us up to speed as Iran prepares for presidential elections next month.

Thank you, Peter.

KENYON: Thanks, Mary Louise.

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