TEHRAN, Iran - As Iran headed into the final hours before the country will get to pick its new president, the deep division amongst both the leading candidates’ ideologies were as explicitly on display as the conflict that voters face.
In what is being dubbed as one of the closest elections in the country in recent times, about 55 million Iranian voters will head to the polls on Friday to pick between the pragmatic incumbent President Hassan Rouhani and his hardline rival Ebrahim Raisi.
With the backing of not only the security forces that wield a huge amount of political and economic clout, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the paramilitary Basij - Raisi also has the backing of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei - an unelected head of state seen as the guardian of the Islamic republic and God's emissary on Earth.
Faced with the tough rival, Rouhani, who is seeking a second four-year term as President and has been known for years as a mild-mannered cleric, reinvented himself as the election drew closer.
He lashed out against Iran's hardline elite on Thursday claiming that a hardline victory could put Iran on a more confrontational course with the West.
He said his rival’s designation as President would prevent the opening of society that a majority of Iranians, especially the youth, yearn to see.
Raisi a conservative cleric who is being considered a potential successor to Khamenei, meanwhile has used the widespread disappointment over the 2015 Iran nuclear deal to unseat the current President.
The failure of Rouhani’s signature achievement, the nuclear agreement, to lift the economy is the weakness that Raisi has backed his bid on.
While Rouhani has vowed to end all remaining sanctions still imposed on Iran for human rights abuses, ballistic missile tests and terrorism support - Raisi has accused Rouhani of not capitalizing on the agreement - inevitably blaming him for the deepening poverty and rising unemployment afflicting the country.
If Raisi wins, both Iran and the United States would be led by presidents who have claimed that the deal was a bad one and believe in the ideology of displaying military strength over diplomacy.
Last year, Iranian economy grew 6.6 percent - most of the growth was however, recorded on the back of oil sales to international markets. Few of those gains actually trickled down to the ordinary population - indicating that the state of the economy would be the priority that voters would pick their choice on.
At his campaign rally on Thursday, Rouhani said, “You want to limit people's freedom. Voters will confront you in the election. We have chosen our path, the path to freedom. We will not retreat.”
He openly criticized the human rights record of the authorities, speaking at rallies about "those who cut out tongues and sewed mouths shut.”
Three decades back, Raisi was involved in mass executions of political prisoners.
In a debate last week, he even accused Raisi of seeking to "abuse religion for power.”
In a rare warning this week, Rouhani also urged Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guards and the Basij militia under its control not to meddle in Friday's presidential election.
Addressing a rally in Mashad, he said, “We just have one request: for the Basij and the Revolutionary Guards to stay in their own place for their own work.”
Raisi’s victory, experts believe could provide the Trump administration further justification for a more confrontational approach to the Islamic Republic.
Meanwhile, a victory for Rouhani would be welcomed by Europeans who seek more business dealings with Tehran.
Europeans are also more likely to resist or ignore any U.S. efforts to slap nuclear sanctions back on Iran.