Iran’s Presidential Candidates Hold Their First TV Debate

Iranian presidential candidates held their first televised debate today, staying mostly friendly as they compete to replace Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in next month’s election.

All eight candidates took part in the program organized and aired by Iran’s state television, which started at 4 p.m. local time and ended some four hours later. Questions pertained to the economy, and candidates were initially given as much as five minutes for contributions. There were no signs of major disagreements between them.

There was general consensus on the need to move Iran away from oil dependence, support local producers and improve the coordination of economic policy, though the format didn’t allow for specific policy ideas to be developed.

A drop in Iran’s oil revenues should be seen as a an “opportunity” not a “threat,” said Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili, who is deemed a possible front-runner.

“The more we reduce our reliance on oil revenues, the better off we will be,” Jalili said, adding that the nation must decrease imports of non-essential products and those it can produce at home, such as wheat and rice.

International Sanctions

Iran’s economy has suffered under international sanctions over its nuclear program, with declining oil output, a weakened currency and surging inflation. While most candidates have raised these issues in the first week of campaigning, few have presented concrete plans for addressing them.

Ali Akbar Velayati, a former foreign minister, said Iran must improve its relations with the world.

“If we don’t make up with the world and expand our relations we won’t be able to use our potential to the full in many sectors,” said Velayati, a longtime foreign-policy adviser Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The shortlist for the June 14 vote mostly consists of loyalists to Khamenei, who is seeking to avoid a repeat of protests that broke out four years ago amid claims that Ahmadinejad’s victory over a reformist president was engineered by ballot fraud. Two prominent would-be candidates, including a former president and a key Ahmadinejad aide, were barred from running.

Khamenei takes the final decisions on affairs of state and has signaled he wants Iran’s establishment to present a united front during the contest.

Live Jostling

Jalili, Velayati and Tehran Mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf are prominent candidates in the race. Others include Hassan Rohani, who had the nuclear portfolio in the early 2000s, and former parliament Speaker Gholam-Ali Haddad Adel.

The debate format was different from that in 2009, when two candidates faced each other, allowing for live jostling and occasionally degenerating into personal accusations.

In the second part of today’s program, which was interrupted by a 15 minutes break, candidates had to reply to questions with yes or no and pick among multiple choice answers, prompting some of the candidates to complain. Former vice president Mohammad Reza Aref said the “test” format was an “insult to the Iranian people and the eight candidates.”

To conclude the program, the eight candidates were asked to comment on pictures including an agricultural field, a traffic clogged street, a busy bazaar alley and a clock, leading one candidate to lament on Tehran’s air pollution and others to recite Koran verses or poetry.

Iran state television said it will hold two more debates on culture and politics June 5 and 7 respectively.

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