What We Learned From Iran's Presidential Debate: QuickTake Q&A

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Iran’s May 19 election is seen as a referendum on the policies of President Hassan Rouhani, the moderate cleric who championed integrating Iran with the global economy and accepted limits on his nation’s nuclear work in exchange for relief from sanctions. He entered his re-election campaign facing criticism from conservatives and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei over his economic policies. The economy was a main theme of the first of three televised debates among Rouhani and his five challengers.

1. Who emerged as Rouhani’s chief challenger?

While it’s hard to draw conclusions from one debate, analysts highlighted the performance of Tehran’s mayor, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf. The conservative candidate was the most vocal in his attacks on Rouhani, casting doubt on the president’s assertion that the business environment has improved and accusing him of failing to create as many jobs as he had promised. “Qalibaf is clearly emerging as Rouhani’s key challenger,” said Ariane Tabatabai, a visiting assistant professor of security studies at Georgetown University in Washington, who follows Iran closely.

2. What was the main theme of the debate?

Social affairs was the theme introduced at the start of the program, but the conversation quickly shifted to economic challenges. The six candidates debated inequality, the shortage of affordable housing and female employment. They also clashed over whether the government delivered on its promises to improve the living standards of poor Iranians. One of the conservative challengers accused Rouhani of forgetting his pledge to create enough jobs, putting the president on the defensive. More than 50 percent of Iranians surveyed by the Toronto-based IranPoll this month said the next president’s top priority should be to reduce unemployment.

3. Who has Khamenei’s support?

Many believe it’s Ebrahim Raisi, a cleric who entered the race as a relatively unknown figure. Only 9 percent of those surveyed by IranPoll said they had a “very favorable” view of Raisi, while 46 percent said they didn’t know him. He delivered a low-key performance in the debate.

4. How did Rouhani do?

An accomplished orator and an experienced statesman, Rouhani continued to defend his economic record and achievements, which include bringing the rate of inflation below 10 percent for the first time in more than a decade. Compared with presidential debates four years ago, however, he “did not manage his time well and his responses were not sharp and to the point,” said Farzan Sabet, Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation. Javad Daliri, editor of the the reformist Etemad daily newspaper, said the president held his own. “Rouhani neither won nor lost,” he wrote.

5. Were there any surprises in the debate?

Yes. Vice President Eshagh Jahangiri, who indicated he would campaign for his boss rather than against him, wasn’t taken seriously when he registered as a candidate, said Afshin Shahi, senior lecturer in international relations and Middle East politics at the U.K.’s University of Bradford. But he defied expectations, putting on an impressive defense of Rouhani and his policies and delivering sharp rebuttals. His presence helped divert some attacks against the president. Even the conservative Jomhouri-e-Eslami newspaper acknowledged his performance, saying he and Rouhani both shone. Etemad, a reformist newspaper, called it the “Jahangiri earthquake.”

6. Couldn’t Jahangiri take votes from Rouhani?

Should he not step down in favor of Rouhani, he will “fragment the liberal, urban and reformist vote, which can potentially pave the way to the victory of a hardline candidate,” Shahi said. “Reformist and moderates cannot afford this” and there will likely be “a pragmatic compromise” before election day.

7. What happens next?

There are two more debates scheduled before the May 19 election. If no one surpasses 50 percent of the vote, a runoff will be held between the top two candidates.

The Reference Shelf

  • Bloomberg’s coverage of the first debate.
  • The nuclear deal faces new scrutiny under U.S. President Donald Trump.
  • Iran’s plan for an oil boom is at risk in this election.
  • Former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was barred from joining the race.
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