TEHRAN, Iran — Tehran’s conservative mayor dropped out of Iran’s presidential election on Monday to back a hard-liner believed to be close to the country’s supreme leader, consolidating the opposition aiming to unseat moderate President Hassan Rouhani.
Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf’s decision narrows Rouhani’s path to victory in an election Friday that’s largely seen as a referendum on the nuclear deal with world powers, and which may turn on concerns about the sputtering economy.
Hard-liner Ebrahim Raisi will gain votes from Qalibaf’s endorsement, but it may not be enough to defeat Rouhani. Every Iranian president since 1981 has won a second term.
In announcing his decision, Qalibaf asked his supporters “to contribute their full capacity and support for the success of my brother, Ebrahim Raisi.”
“What is important and vital is to maintain the interests of the people, the country and (the Islamic) Revolution,” Qalibaf said, according to the state-run IRNA news agency. “This great ideal can only be achieved by changing the status quo.”
Raisi thanked Qalibaf for his support, calling it a “revolutionary act,” according to the semi-official Tasnim news agency. Some have speculated that Qalibaf could serve as a vice president in Raisi’s administration in exchange for his support.
There was no immediate reaction from Rouhani.
Qalibaf’s decision brings the number of candidates competing in Friday’s election to five. It is likely others will drop out to solidify support for other candidates, especially as one of them is serving as vice president in Rouhani’s government.
This election marked Qalibaf’s third presidential campaign, having previously lost running to the left of hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005 and to the right of Rouhani in 2013. Qalibaf pulled in 4 million votes in the first round of balloting in 2005 and over 6 million in 2013.
It’s unclear how much support Qalibaf enjoys today. Many residents of Iran’s capital vented anger at Qalibaf and Tehran authorities after a massive January fire at a historic high-rise caused the building to collapse, killing 26 people, including 16 firefighters.
With Qalibaf out and Ahmadinejad rejected as a candidate by the clerical council that oversees Iran’s election, Raisi now becomes the hard-liners’ best hope to unseat Rouhani. It also suggests that Iran’s election will be decided in the first round, which requires the winner to get over 50 percent of the total vote.
Friday’s election is largely viewed as a referendum on the 2015 nuclear deal shepherded by Rouhani’s administration, which requires Iran to limit its enrichment of uranium in exchange for the lifting of some economic sanctions.
Most Iranians have yet to see the benefits of the nuclear deal. Raisi has been campaigning on that, proposing cash payments for the poor that proved popular in the past under Ahmadinejad.
Raisi, a former attorney general, serves as the head of the Imam Reza charity foundation, which manages a vast conglomerate of businesses and endowments in Iran. He already has the support of two major clerical bodies that declined to endorse anyone in the last presidential election. Both snubbed Rouhani, who himself is a cleric.
Raisi’s candidacy has revived the controversy surrounding Iran’s mass execution of thousands of prisoners in 1988, one of the darkest chapters of the country’s history since the 1979 revolution and an event still not acknowledged by authorities.
Raisi allegedly served on a board that sentenced some of the prisoners to death, something he has not discussed during his campaign, though his supporters have made a video defending his involvement.
That past has worried moderates and reformists in Iran. Qalibaf’s endorsement may push those so far unexcited by the election into voting for Rouhani, said Cliff Kupchan, the chairman of the Eurasia Group.
“There’s nothing that …. brings out young, liberal voters like a hard-line conservative, which Raisi is,” Kupchan said. “It’s the Tehran vote that Rouhani has got to get out and Raisi running will help him do that.”
Gambrell reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.