(Bloomberg) -- Iran’s presidential election shifted toward a straight fight between moderate incumbent Hassan Rouhani and a leading conservative cleric, a contest that polls suggest is too close to call.
Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, the 55-year-old mayor of Tehran who lost to Rouhani in 2013, withdrew his candidacy on Monday and called on his backers to switch allegiance to Ebrahim Raisi. A survey by the state-affiliated Iranian Students Polling Agency last week showed the potential implications: support for Rouhani was at 42 percent, with Raisi on 27 percent and Qalibaf at 25 percent.
“A two-way race between Rouhani and Raisi will polarize society and mobilize the electorate,” Ali Vaez, a senior Iran analyst at the International Crisis Group, said by phone. The narrowing of the field to two main candidates, he said, also makes it less likely that voting will go to a second round -- a situation that arises when no one exceeds 50 percent support in the first.
“It’s definitely more difficult for Rouhani now,” said Aniseh Bassiri Tabrizi, a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London. “We cannot take the renewal of his mandate for granted.”
A Raisi victory could put Iran on a more confrontational course with the West -- and in particular U.S. President Donald Trump, who visits Iran’s chief regional rival, Saudi Arabia, this week. While Raisi has vowed to respect the 2015 nuclear deal that Rouhani secured to end Iran’s economic isolation, a government led by him would likely alarm international investors considering doing business in the Islamic Republic.
While Raisi stands to benefit from Qalibaf’s withdrawal, analysts cautioned that he won’t automatically bank all of his fellow conservative’s support. The two men draw on different constituencies, according to Aniseh Bassiri Tabrizi, research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London.
“Qalibaf speaks more to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and security apparatus, Raisi more to the traditional conservative” and clerical class, so he’ll need to reach out to a wider conservative base, she said.
Another survey by the Iranian Students Polling Agency last week showed that, in a head-to-head contest, neither Rouhani, nor Raisi would garner the 50 percent of votes needed to win in the first round and avoid a run-off. If the then six-candidate field was reduced to the pair, 48 percent of respondents would vote for Rouhani and 39 percent for Raisi, according to the survey released on May 10.
“Not all of Qalibaf’s supporters will move to Raisi, but he does provide some capacity for conservatives to unite,” said Suzanne Maloney, an Iran scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “He should be able to drive a substantial proportion of these voters to the ballot box.”
Raisi still faces “an uphill battle” as Rouhani will also benefit from Qalibaf’s exit, said Vaez, noting the “paradox” that Iran’s so-called Principlist or conservative camp is now rallying around Raisi. It took “20 years to coalesce around a single candidate, but one that lacks executive experience, a clear program and charisma,” he said.
Raisi called Qalibaf’s withdrawal “revolutionary,” the conservative news agency Tasnim reported the cleric as saying on Monday.
Raisi’s candidacy has fueled speculation he is being lined up to succeed Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, 77. It was Khamenei who last year appointed Raisi, 56, to manage the Astan Quds Razavi, an Islamic charity that controls assets worth billions of dollars, as well as the Imam Reza shrine in the northeastern holy city of Mashhad.
Rumors about Khamenei’s health have swirled for years, and Raisi’s appointment appeared to signal confidence in the younger cleric and that he was being groomed for Iran’s most powerful post. Qalibaf’s exit only reinforces that view, Maloney said.
In recent weeks, Rouhani, a 68-year-old moderate cleric, has lashed out at the conservatives over issues from freedom of speech to corruption and wealthy institutions that don’t pay tax.
He has saved much of his most stinging criticism for Qalibaf, whose withdrawal now means Rouhani’s campaign has to adapt for the final few days, said Foad Izadi, a member of the Faculty of World Studies at the University of Tehran who is a critic of the nuclear and Rouhani’s foreign policy.
“It was easy to confront Qalibaf because of his debate performance and past experiences, but it’s more difficult for them to confront Raisi as he’s really a newcomer to the political scene,” Izadi said. “Rouhani’s camp has lost an easy target to beat up on.”
Khamenei, Iran’s final arbiter on all matters of state, intervened last week as the campaigns became more confrontational, calling on candidates to avoid “immoral” outbursts that could damage the nation.
Iran’s relations with the U.S., which improved under Rouhani and led to the nuclear deal and the lifting of some sanctions, have also hung over the campaigning. Trump, who has called the nuclear deal a “disaster,” put Iran “on notice” after it tested a missile test this year, and has pleased the U.S.’s Sunni Gulf Arab allies by vowing to confront growing Iranian influence in the region.
That has led to speculation that Iran’s next government will engage less with the West, especially after Khamenei called on whoever wins to avoid relying on foreign investors to strengthen the economy -- a comment widely interpreted as a criticism of Rouhani.
There are five candidates remaining following Qalibaf’s withdrawal, including Vice President Eshagh Jahangiri, who supports Rouhani and whose candidacy has been aimed at uniting forces behind him, and fellow reformer Mostafa Hashemi-Taba, a former industry minister. Mostafa Mirsalim is a conservative and former culture minister.