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Politics

Iran Presidential Debate: Divisions Over Sanctions, Recycled Promises

June 18, 2024
Pejman Tavahori
4 min read
The first presidential debate for the June 2024 election was held on Monday with all six candidates on state TV.
The first presidential debate for the June 2024 election was held on Monday with all six candidates on state TV.

The first presidential debate for the June 2024 election was held on Monday with all six candidates on state TV. 

The candidates expressed their views on economic issues, specifically inflation, economic growth, and the Seventh Development Plan.

However, apart from the irregular scheduling and numerous delays in holding this debate, several factors made it rather unengaging. 

The discussion was repetitive, with candidates frequently resorting to generalizations and deflecting responsibility for the current economic situation. 

Additionally, there were attacks on the Hassan Rouhani government, even though the former president did not participate in this election.

The candidates failed to take accountability for their own past performance and policy proposals.

Candidates Divided Over Impact of Sanctions

The effect of the United States and European Union's sanctions on Iran's economy and the current situation has polarized the candidates in the presidential election. 

During the first debate, clear divisions emerged over the extent to which sanctions have impacted the nation's economic woes.

On one side, Saeed Jalili, Alireza Zakani, and Amirhossein Ghazizadeh Hashemi explicitly rejected the notion that sanctions have significantly affected the current situation. 

They argued that Iran has managed to earn sufficient foreign exchange income despite the sanctions, even claiming that revenues exceed expenses and needs. 

The candidates downplayed the efficacy of the sanctions regime.

Reformist candidate Masoud Pezeshkian and moderate-conservative Mostafa Pourmohammadi acknowledged the detrimental effects of sanctions on Iran's economy. 

They said attracting investment, achieving 8 percent economic growth, and combating corruption would remain elusive without resolving international issues and lifting sanctions.

Notably, Masoud Pezeshkian directly linked corruption to the sanctions, arguing that they have enabled certain individuals to loot public property through illicit trade networks.

Divisions Within Conservatives Exposed 

The presence of five candidates from the hardline conservative movement in the first presidential debate revealed deep rifts within their ranks in charting the country's path forward.

Alireza Zakani, the mayor of Tehran, stood out as the only candidate attempting to shield Saeed Jalili from criticism by launching attacks on Pezeshkian and Pourmohammadi.

While Zakani seized the opportunity to tout his achievements as mayor, his primary objective appeared to be creating a favorable environment for Jalili to outline his plans without being mired in the controversies surrounding the current administration during the debate.

However, the first debate made it evident that, except Zakani, the other four conservative candidates are likely to resist withdrawing from the race and rallying behind a single nominee.

Jalili, Pourmohammadi, and Parliament Speaker Mohammad Ghalibaf represent the three main factions within the conservative movement, and none seems willing to cede ground to their rivals without a directive from higher authorities.

If no such order for consolidation emerges, the prospects of Pezeshkian's victory may increase, as the conservative vote could split among the multiple candidates refusing to withdraw. 

Guardian Council's Vetting Skews Playing Field 

The Guardian Council's subjective assessments in determining candidate eligibility have created an uneven playing field in the presidential election.

Except for a select few who have consistently passed the Council's vetting processes, most candidates enter the race with little genuine hope of victory, viewing it more as a chance to test their luck.

This dynamic has led to stark disparities in campaign preparedness. 

Certain candidates, having anticipated their approval by the Council years in advance, have prepared by undertaking hundreds of provincial tours, business meetings, and developing comprehensive policy platforms ready to implement upon taking office.

In contrast, other candidates plunge into the election cycle without rigorous groundwork, relying only on their existing knowledge and experience after gaining an unexpected Council approval. 

Their lack of targeted campaigning and outreach leaves them at a significant disadvantage. Consequently, the competitiveness of the election is called into question. 

Candidates Bypass Raisi

Typically, contenders would anchor their promises to the realities of the incumbent administration. However, with five candidates hailing from Ebrahim Raisi's inner circle and one reformist figure in the race, the debates have seen a stark shift in focus.

Rather than grappling with Raisi's record, the candidates have redirected their attacks towards the previous Rouhani government, as no representative from Raisi's camp wishes to invite scrutiny by defending his tenure. 

This dynamic has permitted the field to bypass discussions on Raisi's presidency altogether.

Repeated Claims, Unfulfilled Promises Fail to Motivate Voters

The first presidential debate saw candidates extensively reiterate pledges frequently heard in past elections: achieving the 8 percent economic growth targeted in the 7th Development Plan, reining in inflation, boosting business, directing resources towards production, and aligning salary increases with inflation to preserve purchasing power. 

However, the candidates did not provide any substantive explanation for why their predecessors failed to deliver on these very same promises and why voters should now place their faith in the current crop of contenders.

It is evident that reviving diminishing voter enthusiasm will require more than just recycling familiar economic talking points. 

The potential for polarization along political lines may inject fresh momentum in the coming days. However, being based only on their economic planks so far, the candidates offered little in terms of new ideas or strategies to galvanize the disengaged segments of the electorate.

Without tapping into these catalyzing controversies, participation rates on June 28 risk mirroring the low turnout witnessed in the recent parliamentary election.

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