TEHRAN, IRAN – Iran held a final presidential debate on Saturday that showed the cracks in Islamic Republic politics, as hardliners called those seeking links with the West a ‘infiltrators’ and that the other two candidates in the race spoke of the unrest that surrounded Tehran’s contested elections in 2009.
State-linked analysts and polls put outright judicial chief Ebrahim Raisi at the top of Friday’s next vote ranking, with the public now largely hostile to relatively moderate President Hassan Rouhani after nuclear deal collapsed of Tehran with the world powers.
But that didn’t stop former Rouhani Central Bank chief Abdolnasser Hemmati from harshly criticizing Raisi, at one point getting up from his chair to hand him a list he described as naming people who failed to repay huge loans from state banks. He again attempted to tie Raisi to former President Donald Trump, whose decision to unilaterally pull America out of the Iran nuclear deal saw the country crushed by sanctions.
“Sir. Raisi, you and your friends have played on Trump’s court with your extremist policies,” Hemmati said.
For his part, Raisi called Hemmati’s decision a stunt and said he would make sure the government reverted to the nuclear deal.
The deal “wouldn’t be executed by you, it takes a strong government to do it,” Raisi said.
Friday’s election will see voters pick a candidate to replace Rouhani, whose term is limited to running again. The vote comes amid tensions with the West as negotiations continue to try to resurrect the nuclear deal, which has seen Iran agree to limit its uranium enrichment in exchange for lifting economic sanctions.
The debate echoed the pattern of previous ones, with hardliners focusing their criticism on Hemmati as Rouhani’s replacement. The intransigent Alireza Zakani went so far as to accuse Hemmati of having committed “enormous treason” by sharing financial information with the International Monetary Fund. Former hardline Revolutionary Guards leader Mohsen Rezaei described the Rouhani government as being run by “infiltrators”.
Hemmati, who raised his eyebrows in recent days after telling The Associated Press in an interview that he would potentially be willing to speak with President Joe Biden, said his government would not consider Saudi Arabia and the Emirates Arabs united as enemies. He also warned that without deals with the rest of the world, Iran’s economy would not grow at all.
“What if the hardliners have the power? Hemmati asked. “I’m telling you there are going to be more sanctions with a global consensus.”
It remains unclear whether the debates will affect the views of voters. The state-linked Iranian student polling agency suggested that only 37% of Iranian adults watched the second debate.
There also remains the broader concern about voter turnout. In the past, officials have said the participation was a sign of popular support for Iran’s theocratic government. At present, ISPA estimates that the turnout will be around 41% of the 59 million eligible voters in Iran. This would be the lowest percentage since the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran. The ISPA polls also put Raisi in the lead with enough percentage to avoid a second round.
But unlike previous debates, Hemmati and a low-profile reformist candidate named Mohsen Mehralizadeh staged mass protests that directly challenged the government. Mehralizadeh at one point called on Raisi to intervene with Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to pardon those still detained after national protests in November 2019 against the rise in the price of gasoline subsidized by the Iranian government. State.
These protests ended with a lawmaker suggesting that 7,000 people had been arrested. Amnesty International has put the death toll from the violence at at least 208, with the human rights group saying security forces killed protesters. Iran has yet to offer a definitive account of what happened.
Responding later to Mehralizadeh, Raisi said that most of those arrested “have been pardoned by the Supreme Leader, except those who had connections with other countries or had other problems”. He did not provide any figures for those pardoned and those still detained.
The 2019 protests were the deadliest since Iran’s 2009 presidential vote which saw hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad re-elected amid a contested outcome that gave rise to the Green Movement protests.
“What happened to our young people during those 12 years that changed their songs from ‘Where’s my vote? “To” No way I vote? Hemmati asked at one point.
Gambrell reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.