TEHRAN, Iran — Iran's leading presidential candidate staged a mass rally in the country's southeast that drew thousands of supporters, sparking controversy Thursday as the first such gathering amid the raging coronavirus pandemic that has largely halted traditional election campaigning.
Ebrahim Raisi, Iran's hard-line judiciary chief, toured the oil-rich southwestern Khuzestan province and addressed some 5,000 supporters at a sprawling football stadium in the city of Ahvaz late on Wednesday. Despite the rising infection count and scorching temperatures of 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit), roaring crowds mobbed the stadium to hear Raisi speak.
Although government officials claimed the city's event was held in "full compliance" with coronavirus measures, there were no signs of social distancing on the field. Some supporters wore masks while others did not.
Criticism of the rally for presenting a public health threat flooded social media and even reached the highest levels of government — backlash that forced Raisi to cancel his upcoming tour of the southern Fars province, semi-official Tasnim news agency reported. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani delivered a stern warning to Raisi, ordering the Interior Ministry to deal "decisively and seriously" with "those candidates" who violated Health Ministry guidance on gatherings, state TV said.
Raisi, who analysts suggest is the front-runner in the race, took the stage just before midnight amid pounding Farsi pop music. "Raisi, Raisi, we support you!" the crowds thundered, waving signs.
During his speech, the cleric, wearing a black turban, opined on the country's grievances. He described Khuzestan as "very deprived" and promised that if he becomes president, he would focus on solving the province's problems.
His supporters delivered to him hand-written personal letters about their economic hardships at the event, state-run IRNA news agency reported, continuing a trend popularized by former hard-line populist President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The rare rally comes as Iranian candidates hope to reignite flagging enthusiasm in the presidential vote and boost turnout, held by officials as a sign of confidence in the theocracy since the country's 1979 Islamic Revolution. The typical election frenzy has been subdued by the worst coronavirus outbreak in the Middle East and public disillusionment amid a series of mounting crises.
Raisi's close ties to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his popularity — due partly to his televised anti-corruption campaign — have made him a favorite in the election. He garnered nearly 16 million votes in the 2017 election and lost that race to Iran's relatively moderate President Rouhani, whose administration struck the atomic accord.
Analysts already believe that hard-liners enjoy an edge as Rouhani is term-limited from running again. The public has widely grown disenchanted with Rouhani's administration after 2018, when then-President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew America from the nuclear deal and reimposed crushing sanctions.
Iran is struggling with successive COVID-19 surges and a slow vaccine rollout. Authorities recorded 153 deaths from the coronavirus on Thursday, bringing the total death toll so far to 81,672 out of nearly 3 million infections.