Iran's second presidential debate puts spotlight on key issues

Seven candidates in fray faced off in second of three debates, focusing on key issues and trading barbs.

Iran's second presidential debate puts spotlight on key issues

The second face-off between Iran's presidential candidates Tuesday turned out to be less noisy but a lot more sketchy, with a focus on key issues like structural reforms, economic diplomacy, foreign policy, the country’s nuclear deal and sanctions. 

Touchy issues like social justice, media freedom, social media filtering and mandatory military service also figured in presentations by hopefuls, in a bid to score brownie points.

Some candidates traded barbs too, like reformist Mohsen Mehralizadeh once again taking on conservative heavyweight Ebrahim Raeisi and conservatives Mohsen Rezaei and Ali Reza Zakani making reformist Abdol-Naser Hemmati a target of their salvos.

Others like conservatives Saeed Jalili and Amir-Hossein Ghazizadeh Hashemi largely steered clear of mudslinging, focusing on their elaborate plans, but they too occasionally hit out at the incumbent government.

Hard-hitting salvos

In his opening remarks, top conservative candidate Raeisi, who has been leading in the latest opinion polls, said he will review internal government memos and regulate salaries, pandering to the massive working-class population.

Former Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) chief and conservative candidate Rezaei said challenges facing the country cannot be solved through mere sloganeering, vowing to "bring back stolen rights" of people.

Taking a swipe at the incumbent Hassan Rouhani government, the former military official said the era of "sleepy administrations" will end if he is voted to power, while briefly referring to the 2019 unrest in Iran over a fuel price hike that claimed dozens of lives.

Former nuclear negotiator and conservative candidate Jalili said the “wrong political culture” within the layers of the administration needs to be corrected in order to restore the "broken trust" of people, stressing that the country cannot be run through "mere stunts."

Mehralizadeh, a former vice president and one of the two reformists in the fray, said the 2015 Iran nuclear deal should be revived and the government must negotiate from a position of strength.

He also took a dig at the state broadcaster for censoring some parts of his campaign video, which featured some disqualified reformist candidates.

Former top banker and a reformist candidate Hemmati projected himself as the "voice of the silent majority," echoing the words of his former boss, saying he is opposed to monopoly.

Former deputy parliament speaker and a conservative hopeful Ghazizadeh called for restructuring of the government, without referring to the present administration.

Lawmaker and conservative candidate Zakani expressed concern over the country's population reaching a "critical point," saying he will address the issue of infertility among young couples.

He launched an attack at the Rouhani administration for failing to control inflation, which he said has dissuaded young couples from starting families.

Pitching plans

Rezaei introduced his ambitious plan as "Iran without poor people," which apparently is made up of some attractive packages, including a higher monthly cash subsidy per person.

He said the people of Iran are facing the "hardest time of their lives,” saying the pressure on their livelihoods was not so high even during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s.

Zakani, in his remarks, equated freedom with justice, blaming the current officials for creating “classifications” in the society, with unequal benefits.

He surprised many by taking a dig at fellow conservative Rezaei over his plan to pay higher monthly cash handouts, terming it sketchy.

Mehralizadeh said his plan includes regulating the recruitment of teachers and their salaries and special attention to healthcare workers. He also pledged to vaccinate the entire population "within three months," criticizing the slow vaccine rollout.

Hemmati said that according to his plan, small enterprises and startups will get a boost and cyberspace (Instagram) will help small businesses promote themselves.

He said his administration will be inclusive, with the participation of women and religious minorities.

The former chief of the central bank took strong umbrage to the criticism that he, as the top banker, was responsible for the country's economic woes.

“I think these gentlemen should write a letter to [former US President Donald] Trump and inform him that they are holding me responsible for all the problems he [Trump] has inflicted on the [Iranian] people,” Hemmati said sarcastically.

Raeisi said he has always been "responsible" in every chair he has occupied over the past four decades, adding he will pay attention to salaries paid to workers and teachers.

He said people's livelihoods have been "heavily damaged," adding the country lacked "economic independence," a salvo aimed at the incumbent reformist government.

The judiciary chief said the removal of “cruel” sanctions is an "obligation" of every administration while calling for "active economic diplomacy."

Ghazizadeh said his focus will be on youth and their education. Interestingly, he said his administration will end the two-year mandatory military program for high school students, which remains a deeply contentious issue in Iran.

A medical doctor by training, Ghazizadeh termed the handling of the COVID-19 crisis in Iran and the staggering death toll from the virus as "unjustifiable."

Jalili said candidates must prioritize those plans that help the country "leap forward," adding that maximum participation in elections is achieved through the presentation of robust plans.

In foreign policy, he said he supports “extensive and comprehensive” interactions with the world, while slamming the Rouhani administration for “keeping the country waiting,” pointing to the wait for the US to return to the 2015 nuclear deal and for Europeans to salvage the deal.

Contested issues

The second debate, while less chaotic than the first debate last week, saw candidates trading barbs but keeping it civil.

At least three candidates criticized the state broadcaster over questions and the manner in which the debate was conducted, which also became a hot topic on social media.

Zakani, a severe critic of the Rouhani administration, said people are "fed up with economic frauds." He said he will protect people's privacy, end discrimination, prevent infiltration by spies, and eliminate the filtering of online content.

Social media filtering resonated in Tuesday's debate. After Zakani, Mehralizadeh also criticized internet censorship, saying investment in cyberspace must be eased, while also batting for media freedom.

He also denounced "restrictions imposed on youth,” appealing to young people to vote for him.

“If your vote didn’t count, why did they limit the number of candidates?" he said, referring to the disqualification of candidates by the election supervisory body, the Guardian Council.

Hemmati, in his closing remarks, also raised the issue of "social restrictions," saying "control over people’s lives should be lifted."

There were also heated exchanges between candidates on the use of Turkish-Azeri languages.

After the mid-debate interval, Rezaei said a Turkish word he had mispronounced in the first part of the debate was made the subject of jokes online, which he said he saw during the interval.

He, however, made light of it, saying it shows people consider him "one of themselves."

Mehralizadeh, in his opening remarks, also referred to Raeisi's words that he had received calls from Turk-Azeri people, pleading for their support to him.

To this, he said there are no Azeri speakers in Iran, but Turkish speakers, urging Raeisi to "be more careful" on such things since he is a "judge.”

To Raeisi's charge that there had been "misconduct" in the first debate, Mehralizadeh reacted strongly, saying the censorship of his campaign video by the state broadcaster constituted "misconduct."

In his closing remarks, Raeisi again criticized the candidates who he said keep insulting him.