Iran’s presidential candidates pull out all stops in final debate

Candidates spent more time discussing Iran’s nuclear deal in third debate, as another round to restore accord begins in Vienna.

General view of the election debate at a television studio, in Tehran [Morteza Fakhri Nezhad/YJC/WANA via Reuters]

Tehran, Iran – Iran’s presidential candidates have once again clashed during their third and final televised debate – this time, more openly, especially over the country’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers and United States sanctions.

The seven men – five conservatives and hardliners, a moderate and a reformist – leveraged the slightly improved “debate” format on Saturday to speak more directly and at length about the corruption and misguided management that they believe has led the country astray.

After most candidates criticised the previous two debates that incorporated no moderation and saw them not answering the same questions, state television began the final event by posing one question – on people’s problems – to all participants.

Several candidates discussed the need for an overhaul in the management style of the government in addition to fighting corruption and supporting marginalised Iranians – once again without providing many details on how their plans would actually be implemented.

But most notably, much more time was spent on the nuclear deal, or the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and the harsh sanctions that the US has imposed since 2018 when former President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew his country from the landmark accord.

The issue had been largely ignored during the previous two debates as Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had said last month foreign policy is not one of the “main problems of the people”.

But moderate candidate Abdolnaser Hemmati, who led the central bank until earlier this month when he was dismissed for running for president, harshly criticised the internal political forces who oppose the JCPOA.

“What will happen if power falls in the hands of hardliners?” he directly asked Ebrahim Raisi, who leads the judiciary and is seen as the frontrunner in the polls.

“I have no reservation to say there will be new sanctions with more international consensus,” he said in reference to the pre-JCPOA period, when Iran was under multilateral sanctions.

The technocrat warned that Raisi and other like-minded politicians do not want sanctions lifted as it would cut off forces inside the country who are profiting from them, and said “all this time you played in Trump’s court with your hardline actions.”

He also railed against those who oppose ratifying remaining legislation to complete Iran’s financial transparency action plan with the intergovernmental Financial Action Task Force (FATF).

People watch the debate of presidential candidates at a park in Tehran, Iran [Majid Asgaripour/WANA via Reuters]

‘Flip the table’

In response, Raisi said he will remain committed to the JCPOA like any other state agreement.

However, he said the effective implementation of the accord requires a “strong” government, adding that the outgoing administration of moderate President Hassan Rouhani was not as such.

On the FATF – which currently only counts Iran and North Korea on its blacklist of non-cooperative countries – he said he does not support it because it does not guarantee “our nation’s interests”.

Hardline candidates Saeed Jalili, a former top nuclear negotiator, and Mohsen Rezaei, a former commander-in-chief of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), both said their potential governments would “make the enemy regret” sanctioning Iran through boosting local production and “nullifying” sanctions.

“The JCPOA is a bad cheque,” Jalili said, while Rezaei said Iran must “flip the table, or at least slap the table” when faced with the US reneging on the accord and trying to leverage sanctions to make demands of Iran.

Nuclear negotiations

Just as the candidates were bashing each other, a sixth round of talks in Vienna to restore the JCPOA began, with world powers continuing shuttle diplomacy with US delegates as Iran refuses to meet directly with Washington.

It appears unlikely an agreement to restore the deal could be reached before Iran’s presidential election. Meanwhile, the one-month extension of the contents of an agreement Iran reached with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to continue monitoring its nuclear sites comes to an end on June 24.

Russia’s top negotiator, Mikhail Ulyanov, said in a tweet on Saturday that “all of us want to do it ASAP, but the quality of an outcome document comes first.”

A day earlier, top negotiators of Iran and the US engaged in a Twitter spat as Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi slammed the “crocodile tears” of Robert Malley who had said he was “saddened” by the death of political prisoner Sasan Niknafas under questionable circumstances in an Iranian prison.

“Economic terrorism amid a pandemic is a crime against humanity,” he wrote in reference to US sanctions.

A TV broadcasts the debate of presidential candidates at a shop in Tehran, Iran [Majid Asgaripour/WANA via Reuters]

Candidates oppose disqualifications

Iran, meanwhile, will soon open voting booths as criticism over wide disqualification of reformist and moderate candidates continues.

On Saturday, supreme leader adviser and former three-time parliament speaker Ali Larijani, a pragmatist who was expected to present the biggest challenge to Raisi, protested against his disqualification by the constitutional vetting body known as the Guardian Council.

In a statement, he said a ruling by the supreme leader entitles him to know why he was disqualified, especially as reports that his daughter lives and studies abroad turned out to be false. Larijani called on the hardline council to make its reasoning public.

Council spokesman Abas Ali Kadkhodaei quickly responded, saying in a tweet that disqualifications were decided “based on sufficient and reliable evidence and documents, and no provision has been predicted in the presidential election rule to protest” disqualifications and make reasons behind them public.

A prominent former presidential candidate and opposition leader also criticised the 2021 elections.

Mir-Hossein Mousavi, whose defeated bid to prevent the re-election of hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad led to the 2009 Green Movement protests, said he stands with those who can no longer stand “humiliating and engineered elections”.

Mousavi, who has been under house arrest without trial since the widespread protests, warned that the persistence of the current style of supervision by the Guardian Council could render the title of “Islamic republic” meaningless for the country.

The upcoming elections are expected to be characterised by low turnout amid public disillusionment, with some polls putting turnout at below 40 percent – which would be the lowest since the country’s 1979 Islamic revolution.

The much-criticised debates are also unlikely to generate much public excitement as polls suggest less than four in 10 Iranians watched the previous two.

Source: Al Jazeera