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War of Words: The First Presidential Debate

First presidential debate in Iran's state run TV.
First presidential debate in Iran's state run TV.

Sitting in front of a set resembling a track-and-field arena, three of Iran’s six vetted presidential candidates turned their first live television debate into a ring for a war of words, landing some heavy verbal blows.

Eshagh Jahangiri, the incumbent vice president, accused Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf of trying to resolve social and civil problems through force and “pincer” assaults. The reference to “pincer” comes from an accusation made by President Hassan Rouhani in a presidential debate four years ago, when he accused Ghalibaf of advocating a pincer attack on protesting students back in 1999.

Returning the blow, the former Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps commander called Rouhani and his cabinet the “government for the rich and powerful, a government that 96 percent of the population are against its poor performance.”

Keeping his guard up, Jahangiri responded by asking the Tehran mayor: “Who was responsible for attacking the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Tehran and its consulate in Masshad, the attack that consequently stopped the annual lucrative flow of 700,000 Saudi Shi’ite pilgrims to Iran?”

Jahangiri was referring to a mid-ranking cleric, Hassan Kord-Meehan, who led the attacks and is presently a prominent figure in Ghalibaf’s campaign headquarters.

The attack against the Saudi Embassy in 2016 severed diplomatic ties between Riyadh and Tehran.

Jahangiri, Independent or a Backup for Rouhani?

Ghalibaf later implicitly accused Jahangiri of staying in the race merely to help Rouhani get re-elected, an accusation that Jahangiri immediately dismissed.

Mr. Ghalibaf, twice loser in 2005 and 2013 presidential elections, explicitly accused Mr. Jahangiri of staying in the race to give Rouhani the arguments he needed during the debates.

This accusation is not completely baseless, as several reformists maintain that Jhangiri will pull out of the race after the next two debates. Some believe the same scenario will take place with the two hard-line candidates, Ghalibaf and Ayatollah Ebrahim Raisi. While Ghalibaf acts as the hard-line forward guard in the debates, he might pull out of the race in favor of Raisi.

Elaborating on his background as a former governor and senior cabinet minister, as well as current vice president, Jahangiri emphasized that he is staying in the race because Ghalibaf and the Conservative Faction support him while they have deprived other reformists of their political rights; they have also kept prominent reformist figures under house arrest.

Two former presidential candidates, Mir Hossein Moussavi and Mehdi Karroubi, have been under house arrest since 2009 after huge anti-government demonstrations erupted in protest of Mahmud Ahmadinejad’s reelection, which many saw as engineered. The regime has also banned former moderate President Mohammad Khatami from the media.

Although elections in Iran are seen as tightly controlled and far from free and fair, the 2009 presidential election has been particularly singled out as being rigged, even though candidates were vetted and they all belonged to the political elite.

Rouhani, for his part, accused Ghalibaf of spreading false statements against the government. In response to what the mayor claimed earlier, the incumbent denied he ever promised to create 4 million new jobs. Intensifying his verbal attacks, Rouhani accused Ghalibaf of issuing building permits for the construction of high-rise complexes in narrow and congested alleys.

Rouhani emphatically defended his government’s achievements and proudly reminded the audience that his cabinet has been successful in keeping cyber space and social media open and accessible.

“By preventing social media from being shut down, the government has given the candidates a free platform to promote their viewpoints,” Rouhani said.

The Mayor Punches Back

The mayor threw a quick return jab by accusing Rouhani of dishonesty and “denying the fact” that he promised to resolve national problems in his first 100 days of the presidency. In the meantime, he praised the president’s provincial tours but immediately lambasted him for limiting his travel itinerary only provincial capitals, solely to serve 4 percent of the population.

Ghalibaf, referring to the 11 million people living in inner cities and suburbs, warned that, due to inflation, the value of the 450,000 rials (roughly $13.50) currently distributed as a cash subsidy is practically reduced to the meager sum of 150,000 rials.

Jahangiri retaliated by directly addressing him.

“You are merely the mayor of Tehran, yet you talk as if you run the whole universe,” he roared.

All Quiet On the Other Candidates’ Side

The other three candidates -- mid-ranking cleric and the custodian of the Imam Reza Shrine Ebrahim Raisi, Islamic Coalition Party nominee Mostafa Mirsalim, and reformist Mosatafa Hashemi Taba -- kept a low profile throughout the debate, doing their best to keep out of the line of fire. None of them raised any controversial issues, and without outlining any solid or tangible plans, they simply replayed the message that they support the downtrodden and the poor.

Another two live televised debates are yet to come. Each one lasts three hours. According to the schedule, the candidates are allowed to hold a meeting with their aides and advisers after 90 minutes of the debate.

As far as the first debate is concerned, according to the general impression of observers and opinions expressed on social media, Jahangiri was the winner. He was able to poke holes in Ghalibaf's record as mayor and also illustriously bring out the negative effects of Ahmadinejad's presidency as well as argue that rosy campaign economic promises by hard-line candidates are highly improbable to achieve.