Iran's Rouhani, presidential rivals face off in pre-election debate

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By Parisa Hafezi

The main hardline conservative challenger in the race for Iran’s May 19 presidential election and three other candidates will take on President Hassan Rouhani over his economic record in a televised debate on Friday.

Rouhani, a pragmatist who secured Iran’s nuclear accord with world powers in 2015, has been criticized by hardline rivals over the lack of significant improvements to the economy despite the lifting of sanctions against Tehran as part of the deal.

“The six candidates today will focus on economic issues during a 180-minute debate that will be aired on Iranian state television,” the semi-official Tasnim news agency reported. The debate was to start at 1130 GMT.

TV debates before the 2009 election between then-hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and reformist opponents fired up the electorate and helped lead to serious unrest after his re-election amid allegations of vote-rigging.

The Islamic Republic’s president generally manages domestic affairs, particularly the economy, and can indirectly influence foreign policy decisions. But overall state policy is the remit of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who wields decisive powers across government and the military and security services.

The election will see Rouhani facing off against influential hardline cleric Ebrahim Raisi, conservative Tehran Mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, ex-conservative culture minister Mostafa Mirsalim and reformist ex-vice president Mostafa Hashemitaba.

Also in Friday’s debate was Rouhani’s moderate first Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri, but he backs the president’s policies and is expected to drop out of the race before Election Day.

Khamenei and his hardline loyalists have heaped pressure on Rouhani in recent weeks, criticizing his policy of detente with the West that yielded the deal under which Iran curbed its disputed nuclear programme in exchange for sanctions relief.


The agreement ended years of international isolation, upholding one of the promises of Rouhani’s 2013 campaign that brought him a landslide victory.

But the economic pay-off has been limited, with many foreign investors put off by obstacles to doing business in Iran such as the poor state of banks, the state’s big role in the economy and a lack of clarity about the legal system.

Rouhani defended his economic record on Thursday and called for further engagement with other countries as the key to economic recovery and growth.

Raisi, Rouhani’s strongest challenger, has said Rouhani’s economic and diplomatic policies have been failures. Khamenei himself has urged all presidential candidates not to treat foreign investment as the key to reviving the economy.

Raisi, one of four sharia (Islamic law) judges who oversaw executions of thousands of political prisoners in 1988, has been mentioned as a possible successor to Khamenei.

Raisi and Qalibaf, who is a former commander in Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards, have promised to tackle high unemployment by creating millions of jobs per year, if elected.

Economists have criticized their campaign promises as “unrealistic”. But many Iranians who voted for Rouhani in 2013 are disappointed over his failure to improve their living standards and to create a more liberal society.

Iran’s real gross domestic product grew by 7.4 percent over the past year but that was mainly due to oil exports, according to the International Monetary Fund.

Official unemployment runs at just over 12 percent. But independent analysts put it at around 20 percent.

(Writing by Parisa Hafezi; editing by Mark Heinrich)