Iran's presidential candidates debate justice and a 'resistance economy'

Iran's presidential candidates met today in their first debate of this election cycle.

Mehdi Dehghan/Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting/AP
Presidential candidates from left, Mohammad Gharazi, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, Ali Akbar Velayati, Saeed Jalili, attend a TV debate, in a state-run TV studio, in Tehran, Iran, Friday.

Iran’s eight presidential candidates sought to energize a lackluster election in the first debate of this election cycle, as each tried to stand out among the crowd of approved contenders in the June 14 vote. 

In a marathon four-hour debate on the themes of economic “justice,” failing trust in government, and current mismanagement, the mild-mannered men criticized present and past administrations but did not put forward their own concrete plans. 

The debate comes as Iran’s Islamic regime, self-proclaimed the “Government of God” in 1979, seeks to convince the large number of Iranians angry over a violent and fraud-marred 2009 election to still cast their ballot, demonstrating faith in the political system.

The stakes are high for this vote because it is the first presidential election since 2009, when President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s declared landslide victory prompted millions of Iranians to take to the streets in protest over fraud and led to months of lethal street violence. Patriotic video montages before and after the debate on IRIB state TV showed large crowds voting in past elections, along with the father of Iran’s revolution Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and the current supreme leader of more than two decades, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, both casting ballots.

As they laid out their thoughts on Iran's struggling economy – the predominant issue this election – none of the candidates used the word “change.” But in spelling out a host of problems like soaring inflation and rampant unemployment – exacerbated by severe sanctions imposed by the US and Europe – Iran’s presidential hopefuls promised to lead Iran differently. The candidates discussed widespread corruption, growing inequalities and the daily struggle for many ordinary Iranians as casually as many of their fellow citizens do.

Mohsen Rezaei, a former Revolutionary Guard commander and past presidential candidate, said that during visits to farms, markets and factories in more than 250 townships during the past six months, he found disappointment that many of the promises of Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution remain unfulfilled. 

“I’ve realized that the major ideas that we’ve been speaking about the last 30 years, we are quite far away from this ideal,” said Mr. Rezaei, according to a simultaneous translation of the debate by state-run PressTV.

“I’m referring to discrimination, bribery and so on in the administrative system, the judiciary and many institutions. This way does not allow the fair distribution of wealth,” said Rezaei. “Our friends who also come from those [past and present] governments should tell us why there is such a gap between the different [classes] of society. It’s not time to just chant these slogans.”

A jolt of electricity appeared to enter the presidential race with the surprise last-minute registration of wild card candidates Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former two-time president and rival of Khamenei, and the controversial chosen successor of Mr. Ahmadinejad, in-law Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei. But both men were disqualified by the Guardian Council, which winnowed the field from 686 to the current eight, most of whom are hardline conservatives, with a couple of moderate reformists.

Since 2009 politics in Iran have been shepherded to the far right, under the guidance of Ayatollah Khamenei. The reformist Green Movement has been crushed, accused of “sedition,” and its leaders – both presidential candidates in that 2009 race, and former senior officials, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi – remain under house arrest.

The 'resistance economy'

Several candidates echoed Khamenei's exhortation that Iran has created a "resistance" economy in the face of sanctions and pressure from the West. 

Hassan Rouhani, the only cleric in the lineup, served as Iran’s nuclear negotiator a decade ago, when the reform-minded President Mohammad Khatami was in power. Iran has “resorted” to imports instead of building its own production capacity, and this is the “biggest injustice,” he said. Iran also needs to use its oil wealth more wisely, he added.

“We have a political slogan of resistance, but when it comes to the economy, when it comes to practice, then there is no resistance,” said Rouhani. “This shows that there is no justice, there is no balance between the real requirements and our performance.”

Saeed Jalili, Iran’s current top nuclear negotiator and seen as one of the most conservative candidates and fully loyal to Khamenei, said Iran could overcome the precipitous drop in oil income that has resulted from a US and European effort to block Iranian exports.

“Do we call this an opportunity or a threat?” asked Mr. Jalili, who began his remarks by greeting fellow veterans of the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. “It looks like this is an opportunity. The more dependence we have on oil, the less independent [we are], the bigger the chance we can use the other potentialities and capacities of the country that are substantial.”

He said Iranians could “tap into” software and hardware, and that Iran had a “relative advantage in other areas” such as transit, and providing added value to raw materials.

Another conservative candidate, former parliament speaker Gholam Haddadadel, said Iran should boost non-oil exports and “avoid wasting the money that makes us more dependent on petro-dollars. … By strengthening our financial discipline, we’ll be able to explore new avenues.”

“The resistance economy is one of the issues that can in fact immunize the country,” said Mr. Haddadadel. “It means just making a change, or renovating the economy…. My government in the future must actually have the Islamic lifestyle becoming dominant in this country. We cannot have a Western lifestyle.”

Can trust be bought?

In many instances the candidates spoke in sweeping terms, as if the Islamic Republic were still in its earliest years and had not already had a generation to implement its founding principles, such as rectifying the wide social and economic imbalances that existed during the monarchy.

“The first part of justice is the fact that the government needs to remove its hand from people’s pocket,” said Mohammad Gharazi, a former oil minister in the 1980s. “Justice means in the first place that the hand of those who are removing the money from the pockets of the poor should be cut off. This is the result of inflation,” said Mr. Gharazi. “These inefficient policies and plans that have put in place by previous governments have led to the weaker and poorer people, and a stronger and richer rich people."

Tehran Mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, a conservative whose respected work in the Iranian capital gives him a lead there, said “people must feel” that economic justice is being done, and that the revolution is working for them. Instead, investors faced the risk of takeover and loss, and Iran’s IT sector, education and even internet speeds were lacking.

“There are lots of capacity for production and development,” said Mr. Qalibaf, a former police commander and Revolutionary Guard officer. “Security is very important for investors in out country. [But] there is no security for investment. We don’t fight corruption in the right way…”

The root issue for some candidates was trust in Iran’s Islamic system of government, and its leadership. Ali Akbar Velayati, a former veteran foreign minister who now advises Khamenei, said adherence to belief in supreme clerical rule, known as velayat-e faqih – loyalty to the post now occupied by Khamenei – was required of all candidates.

The new government should "buy back the trust of the people" and include an economist at the highest level, said Mr. Velayati. Qalibaf also promised to stabilize the currency and rein in inflation: "We are in need of people's trust, and within six months we will gain [it]," he said.

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