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Hard Line Challenger Puts Spotlight On Economy In Iranian Presidential Election


Iran is holding a presidential election on Friday. One of the main contenders is a hard-line cleric. He's said to have played a role in the executions of political dissenters in the past. His name is Ebrahim Raisi. His economic agenda has made him a top challenger to the incumbent president, Hasan Rouhani. NPR's Peter Kenyon is in Tehran and talked to people about how the campaign is gaining strength.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Ebrahim Raisi, conservative cleric and former judiciary official, is the surprise candidate of the race. Iranians say they know very little about the man who is now the main challenger to President Hasan Rouhani. To see why, I went to a rally where thousands of Raisi supporters turned out to urge their man on to victory.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting in foreign language).

KENYON: The crowd waved flags and chanted, by the end of the week, Rouhani is gone. The mood was festive, but Raisi's message is not. He says President Rouhani was weak in his negotiations with Western powers and has failed to deliver the economic benefits he promised. In the poor neighborhoods of South Tehran, there's ample evidence of grinding poverty. Most people here have stories of hard times.

I met Hossein Hashemi at a Raisi campaign office in South Tehran where a handful of men had a lively political discussion of sorts about whether it was OK to talk to a foreign journalist or not. But Hashemi, neatly dressed and freshly shaved, then invited me to see his place just around the corner. It turns out he's only a volunteer here. He works as a plasterer when he can find work, which isn't often. And his wife does arts and crafts work for about $10 a week.

Down an alley and through a gate, we reach a small, rectangular, concrete space with no furniture. Then Hashemi opens a side door to show me what's next door - a row of parked cars.

HOSSEIN HASHEMI: (Foreign language spoken).

KENYON: So this is actually garages?

HASHEMI: A garage, yeah.

KENYON: You live in a garage, wow.

Hashemi says he lives in a garage because apartment rents are prohibitive, and even here, their income doesn't cover the rent and utilities. He's expecting to be evicted, and his wife is pregnant with their first child.

HASHEMI: (Through interpreter) We cannot continue to live. The electricity, the rent, gas has broken our back.

KENYON: Away from the campaign office, Hashemi says he has no idea if Raisi will improve things, but they certainly haven't gotten better under four years of Rouhani. Ordinary Iranians may not know much about Raisi, but his name has been mentioned for a higher office - that of Iran's next supreme leader. Raisi has come in for criticism regarding his work as a prosecutor and judge during a bloody period in Iran's history.

Human rights groups say he served on a so-called death commission that ordered the execution of thousands of dissidents in the late 1980s. Those killings are still something of a taboo subject here. They've never been officially investigated, and Raisi has avoided the subject during the campaign. Most Iranians I met either said they didn't know much about the executions or didn't want to talk about them. One man said he would talk if his name wasn't used and then defended Raisi's actions.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Through interpreter) Those people who were killed - they took up arms against the state, and so they were executed. The punishment fit the crime.

KENYON: In fact, rights groups say the deadly purge included not only militants but large numbers of leftists and other nonviolent dissidents. As election day nears, it's unclear how much of an impact Raisi's past might have. Much will depend on who turns out to vote on Friday - people willing to give Hasan Rouhani more time to lift the economy by engaging with the outside world or those who seek a return to a more inward-looking and conservative Iran. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Tehran. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.