In Iran’s third and final pre-presidential election debate on Sunday June 13, the IRGC’s candidate Mohsen Mehr Alizadeh quipped that conservative MP Alireza Zakani was playing the role of a “composition teacher”.
In the previous televized stand-offs, Zakani had criticized the text and content of the statements read out by other candidates. But in the end, the whole third debate turned into something of a composition class.
This time, the candidates seemed desperate to come up with new buzzwords and memorable adages, with former Bank of Iran Abdolnasser Hemmati asking people not to allow June 18 to turn from an “election” to a “coup d’état”. Aside from this, however, the debate featured the same combination of tepid economic promises and stilted atmosphere that Iranians had by now come to expect – with the exception of an unforeseen discussion of the November 2019 protests, and a few startling revelations.
In the third TV debate, Mohsen Rezaei repeated vague plans for economic recovery in Iran while also managing to put some distance between himself and conservative frontrunner Ebrahim Raisi.
Meanwhile, Abdolnasser Hemmati took the opportunity to more clearly explain Iran’s two divergent possibilities for future foreign policy: the route preferred by the principalists, who claim sanctions are ineffective, and that of himself and other reformists, who believe sanctions have been the key factors in the current dire situation of Iran’s economy.
Conservative Saeed Jalili bluntly said that Iran “did not need the world”. But Raisi implicitly stated that he would support the JCPOA, and notably refrained from seriously attacking the Financial Action Task Force (FATF, a global anti-money laundering and terrorism financing initiative). This was likely due to his own confidence that he will be the next president of the Islamic Republic, and expects to make use of funds due to Iran if the current talks in Vienna to revive the agreement succeed.
Hemmati again tried to encourage people to vote and bemoaned that the “Where is my vote?” campaign of 2009 had transformed into “Forget about voting!” in 2021. Just a few hours before the debate, Mir Hossein Mousavi, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s main presidential rival in 2009 who has been under house arrest ever since, had also announced that he was going to boycott the election.
Trusting a Mosquito to Treat Malaria
At the beginning of the debate, the moderator had announced that the conversation would open with one subject: “People’s concerns and priorities.” He then listed seven economic concerns, but no political or social ones. The positions taken by the candidates were generally the same as those in the two previous debates, but those close to reformists did cautiously attempt to cross some red lines.
Conservative candidate Amir Hossein Ghazizadeh Hashemi, himself a surgeon, said that trusting the supporters of Rouhani’s government was like “trusting an anopheles mosquito to treat malaria or treating Covid-19 with coronavirus”. He added that if elected, he would replace “money” and “cronyism” with “honor”.
Mohsen Rezaei claimed that political clashes in Iran had been fueled by “enemy infiltrators”. He also tried to come up with a new aphorism, insisting that the people’s vote was not a “cover-up” but a “growing-up”.
In contrast, Mohsen Mehr Alizadeh raised the normally taboo subject of the November 2019 protests, pointing out that the number of people who were killed or arrested during the uprising remains unknown. He asked Raisi directly to ask the Supreme Leader to pardon the detainees.
In response, Raisi said that protesters had been pardoned, except for those who, he claimed, were either taking orders from outside Iran or were “specific cases.” He did not elaborate on what counted as a specific case.
None of the candidates openly supported the overnight three-fold increase in gas prices that had triggered the 2019 protests, or the crackdown on the demonstrations, not even Ebrahim Raisi. Raisi’s demurring on this issue was startling given that he was one of the heads of branches of government in Iran that had approved the gas price hike.
Instead, Raisi blamed outgoing president Hassan Rouhani alone for this decision. Meanwhile, Alireza Zakani took the opportunity to show the studio the written request to increase gas prices, which Hemmati himself, as governor of the Central Bank, had penned. Hemmati gave no reply.
Elsewhere, as with the two previous debates, Zakani continued with his apparently self-ascribed mission of relentlessly attacking the Rouhani administration. He repeated his earlier promises and named three “un-”s that he said symbolized Rouhani’s government: “uninformed”, “unwilling” and “unable”. Had Pinocchio embodied certain government officials, he said, his nose would have grown so long that it would have to rotate around itself a few times.
The Nuclear Deal: A Bounced Check?
Saeed Jalili did not criticize Rouhani’s government to the same degree. But, he said, far more concerning than the sanctions themselves was the use of sanctions as a political excuse, and blaming all of the country’s ills on them . More than once, he said that the president ought to have “insight” and compared the nuclear agreement to a “bounced check”. On FATF, meanwhile, he said that signing any associated conventions was “useless for Iran.”
Hemmati continued his attacks on the principalists, especially Raisi. He also tried, cautiously, to cross some red lines of his own, arguing that the high prices of commodities and foreign currency were the result of sanctions and that Raisi, Jalili wanted to disconnect Iran from the wider world.
In the third debate, Hemmati also revealed something that he claimed not to have told anyone before. He told viewers that long before the Iranian stock market crashed, he had written a letter to President Rouhani, asking him to prevent government officials from encouraging ordinary people to invest. He also accused Farhad Dejpasand, Rouhani’s Minister of Economic Affairs, of “unethical” behavior.
According to a poll conducted by the Iranian Students Polling Agency (ISPA), just 37 percent of respondents had watched the first presidential debate by the time the third took place. The figure was not dissimilar this time around, either. The only measurable outcome of the debates so far has been that Raisi lost some of his support base, with 65 percent of decided voters now keen to vote for him – down by seven percent since the start of June. Nevertheless, he still understandably believes that he is going to be elected and, in the third debate, spoke with more self-confidence than before.
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