Presidential hopeful Abdolnasser Hemmati has told the Iranian public he mourns for the victims of the November 2019 protests and that he will continue to work for justice for them.
Speaking on Clubhouse on the morning of Friday, June 4, the reformist candidate, whose growing popularity has surprised Iranians following weeks of Ebrahim Raeesi being flagged as the clear winner, said it had been wrong for the government to hike the price of gasoline in November 2019. He claimed he had said as much to Rouhani at the time but that no one listened. If he was elected, he told the Clubhouse audience, he would ensure that a fuller account of what happened would be made available to the public, including the number of people who lost their lives at the hands of the police and security forces.
As part of his process of addressing these mistakes, he said, he would ensure the families of the victims receive the compensation to which they are entitled (under Sharia law, “blood money”).
He also recognized the considerable number of political activists and journalists who had faced trouble, both inside and outside Iran.
Although Hemmati has been dubbed a "weak Rouhani" and a man who will lead the "third Rouhani government,” he distanced himself from Hassan Rouhani’s administration and its policies during the Clubhouse address, as well as criticizing the economic policies of the previous reformist administration of Mohammad Khatami.
"Reformist and principlist no longer makes sense; I am your humble voice,” he told his audience, adding that he was proud to be able to answer voters’ questions during a public-facing session that he believed was the “right of the people.”
When challenged by a Clubhouse event attendee who supported Hassan Rouhani, Hemmati simply replied that he understands and recognizes the cause of the people's anger, a statement that echoed previous comments from him that his biggest challenge was the fact that people were turning their backs on the ballot box in disgust.
Given this, Hemmati’s sympathy with the victims of November 2019 may not do much in the way of supporting him since grieving families are among those saying they will boycott the election, using the hashtags #NoToIslamic Republic and #NoToVoting on social media to encourage others to do the same. Some family members said that every vote symbolizes a further wound, and that boycotting the election shows they do not believe the election will be free or fair. They are not alone: two of Iran’s best-known activists, Narges Mohammadi and former member of parliament Faezeh Hashemi, have also said they will not be casting a vote on June 18.
In recent weeks, Hemmati, who was recently ousted by President Hassan Rouhani as governor of the Central Bank after he refused to resign when putting himself forward as a candidate, has been elevated from a distinct outlier — some commentators have suggested that the Guardian Council endorsed him as a candidate simply to highlight the financial failure of the Rouhani administration — to a viable possible rival against frontrunner Ebrahim Raeesi, the current head of the judiciary.
But despite his efforts, commitment and some hard-hitting statements, during the Clubhouse session Hemmati appeared drained and tired and frequently seemed to lose focus when answering questions. However, at certain points his usual direct, pragmatic style of speaking returned: when responding to a question about his political affiliation by reformist political activist Sajedeh Arabsorkhi, he said bluntly, "I am a reformist and I am good at it” — a comment that seemed to jar with his assertion that he was a politician for all people.
Allies With Some of Iran’s Most Prominent Reformists?
During his Clubhouse campaign speech, Hemmati insisted he has actively engaged with all political groups in Iran, and had been doing so for the last 40 years.
As evidence of this he said, “[Mohammad Javad] Zarif is one of my good friends and a strong diplomat and patriot,” and promised to keep the current foreign minister in his cabinet if elected. “Even if he does not want to work with my government, I will value his guidance and advice,” Hemmati said.
He also said that he had worked with Farhad Rahbar, the deputy finance official for the Ministry of Intelligence under President Mohammad Khatami who went on to be president of the University of Tehran during Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's tenure, and later president of Azad University. Rahbar has become well known for his policies on security, most prominent at the University of Tehran, where security gates were installed by order of the Supreme Leader, and where uniforms for female students were introduced.
The Power of the Revolutionary Guards
Hemmati also spoke of the increasing and undisputed power of the Revolutionary Guards, nodding to previously-leaked comments by foreign minister Zarif about diplomacy being destroyed by the battlefield, a reference to the conduct of Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force Commander Ghasem Soleimani before his death at the hands of the US military in early 2020. “We must focus both military vigor and diplomacy on economic development, and the successful financial outcome of such an effort must go directly into the pockets of the people. The country's resilience must also serve economic development."
He also boasted that he had closed five military financial institutions while president of the Central Bank, suggesting he had already begun addressing the unwieldy power of the Guards.
When asked about his work for an institution regarded as one of Iran’s biggest tax dodgers, whichi is in turn affiliated with one of the country’s wealthiest “charitable” foundations, he said: "The founders of Sina Bank asked me to reform it, as it had many problems. I turned an institution with a poor financial situation around. The relationship between the Foundation for the Oppressed and Sina Bank does not concern me. I ran Sina Bank as an executive director."
The Foundation for the Oppressed, along with Astan-e Quds Razavi, the Revolutionary Guards’ Khatam al-Anbia Headquarters, and the Imam's Executive Command Headquarters, hold 60 percent of Iran's national wealth, and yet it has never paid taxes since its establishment 40 years ago.
Hemmati stated that economic development would be his priority if he was elected. And yet, in the 1990s, he was essentially in charge of Iran’s financial system, and so it could be argued that he holds great responsibility for its failings. He spent 12 years as the head of the Central Insurance agency, seven years as the CEO of Sina Bank, three years as the CEO of Bank Melli, another two years as the head of the Central Insurance agency and then served as a member of the Economic Committee of the Supreme National Security Council during the Rouhani administration.
Women in the Cabinet and a History of Censorship
"It is good that women feel that they have been seen," Abdolnasser Hemmati — whose wife Sepideh Shabestari recently appeared on television to promote his campaign — told Clubhouse. He then went on to promise to appoint five women to his cabinet, adding that 50 percent of his cabinet will be women and younger people. But this raised suspicion among Clubhouse users, given that during Hemmati's tenure in Central Insurance, the central bank, and Sina and Melli Banks, he did not appoint even one woman, though he has claimed that one of his deputies while at Central Insurance was a woman. But critics say this appointment had nothing to do with Hemmati, and that she retired during his time at the head of the institution and replaced by a "sharia-abiding man."
Hemmati has also been accused of censorship, but during the Clubhouse talk, he described such claims as “a lie”. Scheller Haghanifar, a reporter for Iran International, asked him, "If you become president, will you censor, or will you stand up against it, even if it is the Leader's wish?"
Hemmati had also previously asked Raeesi, as head of the judiciary, to order Twitter to be filtered, although he had claimed to be against censorship.
His critics point to his role in censoring the voice of Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, the one-time assumed successor to Ayatollah Khomeini, from a radio broadcast, during his time as a former political deputy head of the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB). Hemmati had said in an interview on the TV program Dastkhat program that Montazeri’s comments were “sharp” and he had made them on the Muslim holiday mid-Sha’ban, which “could have provoked many reactions.” He also described the process of delivering the news at the time: "When we wanted to broadcast the news and it was urgent, we would check it with the Imam [Khomeini] himself….[on this occasion] I consulted with Haj Ahmad Agha [Khomeini's son] and he talked to the Imam and the Imam told us not to broadcast at all. We were at an impasse."