TEHRAN – Iran held a final presidential debate Saturday that showed the fissures within the Islamic Republic’s politics, as hard-liners referred to those seeking ties to the West as “infiltrators” and the race’s two other candidates brought up the unrest that surrounded Tehran’s disputed 2009 election.
Analysts and state-linked polling put hard-line judiciary chief Ebrahim Raisi as the clear front-runner in Friday’s upcoming vote, with the public now largely hostile to the relative moderate President Hassan Rouhani after the collapse of Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers.
But that didn’t stop Rouhani’s former 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 individuals who haven’t paid back huge loans from state banks. He again tried to link Raisi to former President Donald Trump, whose decision to unilaterally withdraw America from Iran’s nuclear deal has seen the country crushed by sanctions.
“Mr. Raisi, you and your friends have played in Trump’s ground with your extremist policies,” Hemmati said.
For his part, Raisi called Hemmati's move a stunt and said he’d make sure the government returns to the nuclear deal.
The deal “would not be executed by you, it needs a powerful government to do this,” Raisi said.
The election Friday will see voters pick a candidate to replace Rouhani, who is term limited from running again. The vote comes amid tensions with the West as negotiations continue to try and resuscitate the nuclear deal, which saw Iran agree to limit its enrichment of uranium in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions.
The debate took on the pattern of the previous ones, with hard-liners focusing their criticism on Hemmati as a stand-in for Rouhani. Hard-liner Alireza Zakani went as far to accuse Hemmati of committing a “huge treason” by sharing financial information to the International Monetary Fund. Hard-line former Revolutionary Guard chief Mohsen Rezaei described the Rouhani government as being run by “infiltrators.”
Hemmati, who raised eyebrows in recent days after telling The Associated Press in an interview he'd be potentially willing to speak with President Joe Biden, said his government would not view Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates as enemies. He also warned that without deals with the wider world, Iran's economy would see no growth.
“What will happen if the hard-liners have power?" Hemmati asked. "I tell you there is going to be more sanctions with global consensus.”
It remains unclear if the debates will affect voters' opinions. The state-linked Iranian Student Polling Agency suggested just 37% of Iranian adults watched the second debate.
There also remains the larger concern about turnout in the election. Officials in the past have pointed to turnout as a sign of popular support for Iran's theocratic government. As of now, ISPA estimates turnout will be around 41% of Iran's over 59 million eligible voters. That would the lowest percentage since Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution. ISPA polling also puts Raisi as the front-runner with enough of a percentage to avoid a runoff.
But unlike the earlier debates, both Hemmati and an inconspicuous reformist candidate named Mohsen Mehralizadeh brought up mass protests that directly challenged the government. Mehralizadeh at one point asked Raisi to intervene with Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to pardon people still held after nationwide demonstrations in November 2019 over price rises of state-subsidized gasoline.
Those demonstrations ended with one lawmaker suggesting 7,000 people had been arrested. Amnesty International put the death toll from the violence at at least 208, with the rights group saying security forces killed demonstrators. Iran has yet to offer any definitive account of what happened.
Responding later to Mehralizadeh, Raisi said most of those arrested "have been pardoned by the supreme leader, except those who had relations with other countries or had other issues.” He offered no figures for those pardoned and those still detained.
The 2019 demonstrations were the deadliest since Iran's 2009 presidential vote that saw hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad re-elected amid a disputed result that gave rise to the Green Movement protests.
“What happened to our youth during these 12 years that changed their chants from ‘Where is my vote?” to ’No way I'm voting?'” Hemmati asked at one point.
Gambrell reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.