Supporters of Iranian President and presidential candidate Hassan Rouhani chant slogans during an electoral campaign gathering in the northwestern city of Zanjan on May 16, 2017.
Iran's presidential election on May 19 is effectively a choice between moderate incumbent Hassan Rouhani and hardline jurist Ebrahim Raisi, with major implications for everything from civil rights to relations with Washington. / AFP PHOTO / Behrouz MEHRI        (Photo credit should read BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images)
Why the world should watch Iran's election
01:38 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

Iranians are casting their votes Friday in a presidential election that could have serious implications for the future of the country and its relationship with the West.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, a moderate cleric (by Iranian standards), is seeking a second term as he faces off against a range of hardline conservative candidates.

Here’s everything you need to know about the vote.

Is Iran really a democracy?

Yes and no. Iran’s president and parliament are democratically-elected, but the country’s highest authority is the Supreme Leader, who is appointed for life and has the final say on all matter of foreign and domestic policy.

The Supreme Leader – currently an ultra-conservative cleric named Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – helps appoint the Guardian Council, an unelected panel of conservatives that decides who gets to run for president (and who doesn’t). Many popular reformist candidates have been disqualified from running in recent elections. 

The president does have considerable leeway to enact policy at home and abroad, by appointing thousands of officials in the country and building a significant power base. This allows him to steer the regime in unexpected directions, such as with Rouhani’s landmark nuclear deal. Still, everything must be approved by the Supreme Leader.

Why should you care?

Rouhani supporters rally during a campaign gathering in northwest Iran on Tuesday.

Rouhani was a key player in the 2015 deal with the US and world powers to curtail Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief, and has overseen a period of growing normalization of relations with the West.

A Rouhani win would mean that Iran could continue to move ahead with its end of the nuclear deal relatively uninterrupted. The deal is considered the landmark of Rouhani’s tenure and he will be keen to see it through.  

A hardliner win would pose a considerable threat to the continuation of the nuclear deal. Iran’s conservative camp, backed by Khamenei, have been vocal critics of the deal. They’ve also criticized Rouhani for pandering to the West, signaling that a hardliner win would mean a shifting of diplomatic gears and a possible heightening of tensions with the international community.  

Female supporters of Ebrahim Raisi attend a rally in Tehran last month.

How does the election work?

The first round takes place on Friday, but if no candidate gets more than 50% of the vote, a runoff will take place on May 26.

Who are the frontrunners?

Rouhani (L) and his chief election rival Ebrahim Raisi.

There are five presidential candidates in this year’s race, but only two are seen as viable contenders: the moderate incumbent Hassan Rouhani, and hardline conservative cleric Ebrahim Raisi. 

Hassan Rouhani (moderate)

Rouhani is a moderate who is backed by Iran’s reformist camp. His run for re-election is viewed as a referendum of sorts on the nuclear deal, which has yielded mixed economic results for Iranians.

Ebrahim Raisi (hardliner)

Raisi is widely seen as Khamenei’s preferred candidate and has cast doubts on the benefits of the nuclear deal. The 56-year-old cleric was a member of the so-called “Death Commission”, which presided over the summary execution of thousands of  political prisoners in the summer of 1988.