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Talking Points: Social, Economic Issues Focus Of First Iran Debate

Top left to bottom right: Eshaq Jahangiri, Mostafa Hashemitaba, Hassan Rohani, Ebrahim Raisi, Mostafa Mirsalim, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf

Six men have been approved to appear on the ballot for Iran's presidential vote on May 19, with a potential second round to follow. They are meeting on April 28 for the first of three planned televised debates, this one focused on social and economic issues. The subsequent debates run through May 12.

The candidates are: incumbent President Hassan Rohani, a reformist; conservative cleric and former prosecutor Ebrahim Raisi; Tehran Mayor and former police chief Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf; reformist First Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri, a Rohani ally; conservative former Culture Minister Mostafa Mirsalim; and former Iranian National Olympic Committee head Mostafa Hashemitaba, a centrist.

Here are some of the social and economic issues that are likely to arise in the April 28 debate and throughout the campaign.

Where's The Growth?

President Rohani's rivals are seizing on the country's sluggish economic performance to attack his four-year record, promising especially to tackle poverty and unemployment.

Candidates are already making promises regarding the creation of much-needed jobs in a country where many are either unemployed or underemployed.

Raisi has promised to create 1.5 million jobs per year, while Qalibaf has said that if elected he will generate 5 million jobs.

Rohani's critics have said that the 2015 landmark nuclear deal placing curbs on Tehran's nuclear program in exchange for international sanctions relief has failed to improve the life of the poor.

The February parliamentary elections and voting for the Assembly of Experts (which can pick and dismiss the supreme leader) appeared to demonstrate significant public approval for Rohani and the nuclear deal, seen as key to a thaw in relations with the West.

But reports from Iran suggest there is rising public frustration over a lack of tangible benefits from the deal. Most respondents in a recent poll said they believe the nuclear accord has not improved the life of average Iranians.

Rohani's rivals will complain that he conceded too much while obtaining little in return. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has accused the United States of not keeping its side of the bargain -- whose signatories also include the United Kingdom, France, Germany, China, and Russia -- and presidential challengers are likely to cite sanctions still in place (in connection with issues like human rights, Tehran's missile technology, and alleged support for terrorism) to argue that despite the deal, Washington has not lifted all its sanctions.

Challengers are also likely to propose ways to create a "resistance economy" -- as emphasized by Khamenei -- to make the country more self-sufficient.

In an implicit criticism of Rohani, who has pushed for Western investment, Khamenei earlier this week urged candidates to focus on domestic capabilities to resolve the country's economic problems. Speaking on April 25, Khamenei, who has the last say in virtually all domestic affairs, said candidates "should promise not to look outside the borders [but] rather inside the nation itself for progress, for economic growth, and to untie the knots."

Civil Liberties

Many Iranians have expressed a desire for less censorship -- both online and offline -- and appear fed up with state intervention in even the most private aspects of their lives.

Rohani's promises to expand individual freedoms and civil liberties and lessen censorship and state restrictions on people's lives was among the reasons many voted for him in 2013. He is campaigning on themes that include fewer curbs on the press, more civil freedom, and greater openness generally.

Nearly as a rule, conservative candidates in Iran refrain from openly advocating for more restrictive policies. For example, in his 2005 presidential campaign, hard-liner Mahmud Ahmadinejad said that women's adherence to the dress code -- for instance, whether their hair is completely hidden -- should not be an issue; yet a crackdown ensued after his election in which many women were detained and harassed for not fully respecting a strict interpretation of the so-called hijab.

In an interview with state-controlled TV, Raisi spoke broadly in positive terms about cyberspace, which is tightly controlled in Iran, amid demands for even greater control by his hard-line allies. He also spoke in support of art and culture, a frequent target of conservatives including his father-in-law, Ayatollah Ahmad Alamolhoda, the Friday Prayers leader in Mashhad who has pushed for concerts to be canceled in that city.

Rohani could also face pressure over his 2013 promise -- so far unfulfilled -- to release opposition figures whom hard-liners regard as "insurrectionists." Mehdi Karrubi, Mir Hossein Rohani, and Rohani's wife, university professor Zahra Rahnavard, have been under house arrest since 2011 for challenging Iranian authorities over the results of the 2009 presidential election and highlighting human rights abuses.

Meanwhile, many pro-reform Iranians remain concerned about their house arrest. Rohani's supporters chanted Musavi's name at one of his recent campaign events, according to a video posted online by young reformists supporting him.

Reformists are likely to use Raisi's role in the 1980s mass executions of dissidents and political prisoners to campaign against him. But talk of those killings is unlikely to erode support among Raisi's hard-line supporters.

Ties With U.S. And The West

While Rohani argues that mending ties with the West makes Iran more powerful, his rivals are likely to say that Iran needs to project power and that the country should avoid appearing weak in the face of pressure and rising tensions with the United States under President Donald Trump.

Rohani has argued that confrontational policies could take Iran to the brink of conflict.

"In the coming election, the issue is whether we want to begin confronting the world and bring back the ominous shadow of war or continue on the path of honorable interaction with the world," Rohani said in an April 23 speech.

The president has been criticized by hard-liners for giving away too much in the nuclear negotiations.

Raisi, who is widely seen as the most potent of Rohani's rivals in this election, in an interview with state-controlled TV on April 26 cited unity and national authority as the best ways to confront the United States. He claimed that the United States "is afraid of the name Iran."

He also appeared to express support for last year's brief detention of U.S. sailors by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).

"We all saw in the Persian Gulf how our youth brought the Americans with tied hands and put them in a humiliating situation," Raisi said.

The sailors were detained for 15 hours after their boat drifted into Iranian waters during a 450-kilometer journey from Kuwait to Bahrain, where the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet is located.

Women's Issues

Candidates will almost certainly issue promises regarding women's rights to boost support among female voters. Rohani is expected to be bolder in his declarations, as he was in 2013 when he pledged to create more jobs for women and appoint them to senior posts, while conservatives, who support limited roles for women in Iran's clerically dominated society, are expected to keep their promises more modest.

A video posted online by Raisi's campaign appeared to be an attempt to reach out to women. In the video, the hard-line cleric praises the work of his wife, Jamileh Alamolhoda, who teaches at Shahid Beheshti University, and says that he doesn't mind coming home to an empty household.

"If there's no dinner, I don't mind," said Raisi, who added that his wife's work helps the country.