On May 5, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani improved his performance in the second of three televised debates that pitted him against five other contenders for the job. While he had been in a mostly defensive mood in the first debate last week, today’s debate was a different matter: From the first question, the president came out swinging.
Rouhani’s performance was matched on the other side, as the three conservative candidates closed ranks and mounted a three-pronged assault on the modernizing, self-styled “moderate” who has the backing of the country’s reformists. Eshagh Jahangiri, the reformist vice president who performed much better than expected last week, continued to play auxiliary to Rouhani. He is widely expected to withdraw in favor of his boss sometime before election day on May 19.
Today’s debate focused on “political and cultural matters.” The first to take the podium was Tehran’s mayor, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, who is running for the third time. Speaking about education, the ambitious conservative answered an innocuous question with one of his own — a direct attack on the government. How could education be improved, he asked, when illegal imports were recently discovered at the home of the education minister? This gave Rouhani and Jahangiri an opportunity for a swift counter-attack. Jahangiri implied that the country’s judiciary, known to be close to the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and the country’s conservatives, had raided the minister’s house as part of a politically-motivated attack, a clear demonstration of what the current administration had to put up with, and how “wronged” it was. Ghalibaf’s riposte was equally strong: He accused the government of “supporting the importers,” not the poor or unemployed.
Ghalibaf continued to bank on his slogan of mobilizing the “96 percent” against the “4 percent” — his reference to what he sees as the establishment elite. Rouhani responded to this by mocking him, accusing him of devising an “amateurish copy” of the Occupy Wall Street movement and for using the reference to “96” simply because it’s the year 1396 in the Persian Calendar.
The capital’s mayor remains the strongest rival against Rouhani. Ebrahim Raeesi, who was previously held to be the favorite of the conservatives, gave another anemic performance in today’s debate, despite performing slightly better than he did during the first. His attacks on Rouhani seemed to have been more coordinated with the two other conservatives in the race, Ghalibaf and Mostafa Mir Salim. But he still lacked a specific character and will fail to enthuze swing voters or those who are attracted by the economic promises of Ghalibaf.
The Citizenship Charter, Cultural Rights and Equality for Minorities
Rouhani and Jahangiri were also more effective in defending their track record in today’s debate. The president talked of his “Citizenship Charter,” and promised to make it into a reality during his second term. He spoke of the resistance he faced when appointing a Sunni woman as governor and repeatedly appealed to the country’s ethnic minorities, whose inequality he decried. Ghalibaf, on the other hand, denied that such inequality existed, while boasting of the Sunni officials he had appointed “even in the Kurdistan province” during his time as the national police chief.
Jahangiri said the right to education in mother tongues needed to be extended to all ethnic groups. He boasted of the government’s measures to do this for Iran’s Kurds and Azeris (many of whom prefer the customary term “Turkish” when referring to themselves). Jahangiri also praised the government’s efforts to deliver a free internet and a free press, and the opening of more than 8,000 non-governmental organizations.
The Nuclear Deal
The question on the nuclear deal, agreed in 2015 between Iran and a group of six powerful countries known as the P5+, presented the best opportunity for Rouhani to defend his achievements. Every single candidate promised to defend and upheld the deal — known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) or Barjaam in its Persian acronym — while at the same time criticizing Rouhani’s implementation of it (apart from Jahangiri). Raeesi even referred to the deal as a “national document,” leading Rouhani to ask: If the deal is so good, why did you spend so much time attacking it when the talks were going on? Rouhani then went on to point out angrily that his rivals had been happy with the election of Donald Trump because they had hoped he would tear up the deal.
Rouhani was also the first to mention Syria during the debate, which is the only debate scheduled to include foreign policy matters. While candidates had been warned by military officials not to stray into their turf, the president cautiously mentioned the Iranian lives lost in Syria. At the same time, he boasted that Iranian diplomacy was now so strong on the matter that it was seen as a major player in Syria talks organized by Ankara and Moscow.
As predicted, Jahangiri and Rouhani both spoke about the continued battle the country’s musicians had been forced to fight, and the phenomenon of shutting down legally-approved concerts. The topic was especially relevant since it was Ayatollah Alamolhoda, the Friday prayer leader in Mashhad, Iran’s second biggest city, who had said he won’t allow any concerts to be held in the holy city, no matter what the legal authorities say. Alamolhoda, who many voters know is the father-in-law of Raeesi, has become a hated figure for many due to his encroachment on central government’s sovereignty.
On the importance of public diplomacy, Jahangiri also managed to mention the popular film director, Asghar Farhadi, and this year’s Oscar win for his film The Salesman.
During the debate, Rouhani addressed the voters directly on several occasions, making an attempt to offer them a direct choice: “Do you want a government that gives promises or one that acts? An authoritarian government or a democratic one?”
There are many reasons for the Rouhani camp to be jittery about the results on May 19. In 2013, The president won by a mere 50.71 percent, and if he falls below 50 percent, the race will go on to a second round. If this happens, he’ll be forced to go head to head with a conservative, probably Ghalibaf, who will try to hit him on his Achilles heel: The problems of the poor.
The president managed to list some of his economic achievements, and even managed to mention the national health care plan his government has put in place (it is strange that this impressive national plan has not been a ballot box issue). But he still needs to do more if he is to attract those segments of society that are yet to see the benefits of the “8 percent economic growth” he boasted of during the debate. This part of the Iranian electorate is most likely to be wooed by the promises of Ghabliaf and Raeesi.