Iran’s presidential candidates clash amid disqualification row

From threatening prosecution to exchanging allegations, aspirants pull no punches in the first of three debates.

An Iranian vendor watches Saeed Jalili speaking during the first televised debate between Iran presidential candidates, at a shop in Tehran on June 5, 2021 [AFP]

Tehran, Iran – Seven candidates qualified to run in Iran’s June 18 presidential election have gone head-to-head in a televised debate, as controversy over the disqualification of other hopefuls persists.

Saturday’s three-hour event focused on the economy, which has taken a big hit in the past three years under US sanctions and is characterised by rampant inflation and high unemployment. Two more debates are due to be held on Tuesday and next Saturday.

The first session was held with no moderation. Instead, the state television presenter picked out numbered balls from glass containers indicating what randomly selected question was to be asked to which candidate, who then had three minutes to offer their response.

But much of the debate was spent almost completely ignoring the questions – from tax evasion to budget deficit management to big bank debtors – as candidates attacked each other and discussed work they deemed necessary to shore up the economy.

In the second round, the candidates – seated six feet apart behind podiums – were each given four minutes to defend themselves against others. This was followed by participants laying out their economic plans in more detail during four-minute speeches. Their microphones were cut off the second their time ran out.

Judiciary chief Ebrahim Raisi, who is considered to be by far the frontrunner in the upcoming polls, seemed to be the centre of attention.

Technocrat former central bank chief Abdolnasser Hemmati and reformist former Vice President Mohsen Mehralizadeh were the only ones to criticise conservative Raisi.

The remaining four conservative and hardline candidates – senior security official Saeed Jalili; secretary of the Expediency Council, Mohsen Rezaei; and lawmakers Alireza Zakani and Amir Hossein Ghazizadeh Hashemi – did not take issue with Raisi, attacking their reformist opponents and the current government instead.

This led to Hemmati accusing the other candidates of only covering for Raisi, an allegation they strongly rejected.

‘Restless position syndrome’

Mehralizadeh said he respected Raisi’s seminary studies but argued he was not well-equipped to run a country of more than 82 million people as he had completed only six grades of traditional education and had zero executive economic leadership experience.

He also joked that Raisi was suffering from “acute restless position syndrome” as he transitioned from spending most of his career as a judge to becoming the head of the powerful Astan Quds Razavi religious organisation in Mashhad, running unsuccessfully for president in 2017 and then becoming judiciary chief in 2019.

“What guarantee is there that you won’t abandon the president’s office for a higher one?” Mehralizadeh asked, alluding to widespread assumptions that Raisi will become the next supreme leader when 82-year-old Ayatollah Ali Khamenei passes away.

In response, Raisi said criticising him would not solve the country’s problems and that he had zero ambition for position and power, adding he was only answering public calls.

Meanwhile, Hemmati, who says he wants to represent the “silent majority” of Iranians in the election and has tried to distance himself from the economic legacy of outgoing President Hassan Rouhani, came under attack by opponents who tried to portray him as part of the country’s economic woes.

A printshop worker prepares presidential election posters in Tehran, Iran [Majid Asgaripour/WANA/Reuters]

Holding up a rial banknote, four-time presidential candidate Rezaei said he had known, decades ago, that the embattled national currency would be significantly devalued. He called the Rouhani administration one of the worst since the 1979 revolution, adding: “The train of the revolution has turned into a scooter.”

The former commander-in-chief of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, who was criticised by Hemmati for previously suggesting Iran could make money by taking American citizens hostage, directly threatened the former central banker with prosecution and jail for his role in the handling of the economy. This led Hemmati to ask judiciary chief Raisi to guarantee he would not go to jail.

Hemmati also criticised Rezaei and other hardliners for stalling remaining bills to complete Iran’s financial transparency action plan with the Financial Action Task Force and said he was sorry that many Iranians, especially women, had no representative among the presidential candidates.

Supreme leader defied on disqualifications

The bickering among candidates came a day after Khamenei said the constitutional vetting body known as the Guardian Council – six members of which are directly appointed by him with the other six appointed by the judiciary chief – made an error in assessing candidates.

Without naming candidates, the supreme leader said a number of them were “wronged” and disqualified based on false information and “demanded” that corrections be made.

During a live TV speech on June 4, Khamenei urged voters to turn out for the presidential election [KHAMENEI.IR/AFP]

He was apparently referring to Ali Larijani, a three-time former parliament speaker and his current adviser, who could have been Raisi’s top competitor had he not been disqualified.

Sadeq Amoli Larijani, the disqualified candidate’s brother and a Guardian Council member, said in a statement that he had never found the body so “indefensible” in his 20 years there, and said intelligence agencies contributed to his brother’s disqualification by offering up false reports.

Hours after Khamenei’s speech, the council released a statement saying it would not change its votes – in essence disobeying a direct order by the supreme leader in an unprecedented move.

First Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri and a wide range of other reformist and pragmatist candidates were also disqualified by the council, leading to criticism that non-conservative hopefuls had been purged.

Voter turnout is expected to be low in the face of widespread public disillusionment due to economic and social woes.

Source: Al Jazeera