Moments after it began, Iran’s first presidential election debate of 2021 descended into all-out warfare. Perhaps aware that they have little time for courtesy and appeasement, the atmosphere between the candidates was far more hostile than in 2013 and 2017 and two of the participants, Abdolnaser Hemmati and Mohsen Rezaei, even threatened each other with legal action.
Hemmati, the former governor of Iran’s Central Bank, presented himself as the main competitor to Chief Justice Ebrahim Raeesi in the upcoming race. In turn, he dismissed other candidates – especially conservative ex-MP Alireza Zakani – as nothing more than “supporting actors” for Raeesi.
Nevertheless, Hemmati spoke only in political terms, not economic ones, although he did repeatedly emphasize that he was the only economist among the candidates. But Mohsen Rezaei, a former commander of the Revolutionary Guards and the current secretary of the Expediency Council, in turn attacked Hemmati for being a symbol of the failed policies of the Rouhani administration – in turn serving to underscore his role as a “supporting actor”.
Rezaei also accused Hemmati of not paying attention to the Ahmadinejad era or other institutions such as the judiciary. Throughout the debate, Rezaei’s comportment was very different to that of his past presidential campaigns. At times he appeared to be losing control, and his staged antics – such as pretending to be on the verge of tears – did not seem to endear him to the audience, but rather had the opposite effect.
An Old Joke
The pre-election atmosphere, and the overt presence of apparent show candidates such as Alireza Zakani, contributed to the hostile mood during the debate. For his part, Zakani also spoke in a manner that was reminiscent of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, dropping in vulgarities such as repeating an old joke about the value of the Iranian currency and sarcastically saying Hemmati deserved a Nobel prize for converting Iran’s official currency into garbage.
Hemmati and Mohsen Mehr-Alizadeh, a former governor of Isfahan, tried to portray themselves as representatives of the reformist camp, although Mehr-Alizadeh was more forthright about it. If elected, he claimed, his government would be Mohammad Khatami’s “third administration”.
On the whole, however, however, was more successful in this endeavor because of the way the principalist candidates united in attacking him as their main target. There was, of course, method to the conservatives’ apparent madness: they sought to paint Hemmati as a relic of Rouhani’s government, and as such Iran’s economic disaster. Hemmati in turn seized the opportunity to present himself as the last man standing against the conservatives. He did not so much attack Raeesi personally as their whole, shared ideology.
Mohsen Mehr-Alizadeh, however, did not hold back in attacking Raeesi either. He said the judiciary chief had only “six grades” of education and suffered from “restless occupational syndrome” because of his multiple role changes in the past few years. Coming from Mehr-Alizadeh, this seemed odd; this candidate likely sees attacking Raeesi as his only chance, and has also posted on social media about Raeesi’s role in the 1988 massacres.
Ebrahim Raeesi’s debating strategy was marked by his maintaining a comparatively calm demeanor and pretending, incredulously, that he was a victim. He did not directly answer any of the charges leveled against him by Hemmati or Meh-Alizadeh, and instead tried to deflect attention by reminding the audience that Rouhani and vice-president Eshagh Jahangiri had raised the same point in 2017. All of this will probably boost Raeesi in his supporters’ eyes but is unlikely to bring any new voters onside.
Elsewhere Saeed Jalili, a former nuclear negotiator under Ahmadinejad and former Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, and Amir-Hossein Ghazizadeh, a member of the parliament, chose a different tactic. Jalili’s attacks on Hemmati were often indirect, and repeated his refrains from the 2013 presidential election debate: that Rouhani’s government relied on Europe and the United States whereas he, Jalili, regarded the whole world including Iran’s immediate neighbors with hope.
In response, Hemmati repeated the gist of what Ali Akbar Velayati, currently senior advisor to Ayatollah Khamenei in international affairs, had said in 2013: that over the past 20 years, Jalili has done nothing but recite the same statements.
In the midst of these attacks and counter-attacks, Amir Hossein Ghazizadeh Hashemi, a long-time member of the parliament from Mashhad, tried to limit himself to enunciating his presidential manifesto. He also tried to argue that as the youngest candidate – at aged 50 – he represented the new generation.
Most presidential debates offer up at least a few memorable soundbites. In 2017, Rouhani accused then-mayor of Tehran and now speaker of parliament Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf of planning to launch a “pincer attack” against protesting students, and in 2013, he told the audience: “I am a lawyer, not a colonel”.
There were fewer strong statements from the candidates this time around but one or two drew attention, such as Mohsen Rezaei’s claim that the “train of the [Islamic] Revolution” had turned into a “scooter”. Hemmati tried to do the same, but struggled. While he did succeed in portraying himself as Raeesi’s competitor, he failed to come across as a headstrong leader who could stand up to the powerful, unelected forces standing behind Raeesi. Mohsen Rezaei also tried to portray himself as a serious contender to Raeesi but did not manage to clarify what made him any different to the other principalists.
More debates are due to take place in the coming fortnight. But all candidates have aggressively shown their hands in the first round, calling into question what talking points – if any – they will be able to offer in future confrontations.