Post-Debate Roundup and Early Analysis

I realize it’s not always easy to remember the cast of characters involved in Iranian politics, so if you need a quick refresher of the candidates’ names and profiles, please see here.

Debate Roundup

Iran held its first presidential debate this past Friday, providing the candidates their first real opportunity to interact with each other on the national stage. As with nearly all major political debates, it went on far too long (although they were kind enough to include a short break in the middle, which, in true Iranian fashion, lingered on far longer than it should have). It also frequently veered off-topic. Questions from the moderator about social issues, the alleged topic for this debate, were often met with answers about the economy.

The main story of the event was the war of words that broke out between the conservative Mayor of Tehran Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf and the reformist First Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri. The former questioned the latter’s legitimacy as a candidate in the race, accusing him of being a shill for Rouhani — in whose cabinet Jahangiri currently serves as first vice president — and of disingenuously taking valuable airtime from actual contenders for the presidency. Jahangiri responded with harsh accusations about the Tehran Mayor’s political connections, claiming that Qalibaf has ties to the plotters behind the attack on the Saudi Arabian embassy in Tehran in January of 2016. He also referenced the Plasco building collapse earlier this year, after which Qalibaf faced accusations of mismanagement and calls for his resignation.

To be fair, neither candidate really stretched the boundaries of credulity with these accusations. By now, Qalibaf’s assertion that Jahangiri is in the race merely to support Rouhani is a more or less open secret. Nearly everyone expects that Jahangiri will withdraw before election day and throw his support behind Rouhani. Even if he doesn’t, the reformist and moderate factions are so closely aligned that it is difficult to imagine that their supporters would fail to understand whom to vote for to maximize their chances of winning. I have yet to read any reports of hardcore reformist Jahangiri Bros willing to risk a conservative victory by spoiling Rouhani’s chances.

Jahangiri’s platitudes about being in the race to represent reformist interests notwithstanding, neither he nor Rouhani did anything in this debate to suggest that the two men are not working together. Even Jahangiri’s aggressive attack on Qalibaf could be seen as a shrewd, perhaps even obvious, tactic to bog down the conservative candidate in a petty verbal altercation with a marginal candidate. Every second Qalibaf used arguing with Jahangiri was one fewer he could spend on his real rival in this election. Rouhani was thus free to remain largely above the fray, looking presidential while discussing his proposed policies.

Jahangiri’s invocation of Qalibaf’s shady political connections, meanwhile, seemed to strike a nerve among some viewers. Just moments after Jahangiri’s statement about links to the Saudi embassy attack planners, photos of Qalibaf with one of the plotters started bouncing around Twitter:

The man on the left next to Qalibaf is Hassan Kordmihan, a “mostly unknown but highly active cleric with deep connections” who was arrested in late January 2016 in connection with the attack earlier that month. The BBC also has a good bio article on him (Persian) that goes into more detail about his ties to various hardliner groups in Iran.

If there was a loser in this debate, it was conservative cleric Ibrahim Raisi. He kept a low profile throughout the proceedings, talking mostly in generalizations about various problems without saying much of substance. He also refrained from attacking any of the other candidates. In his only significant policy proposal of the debate, he said he would triple government cash subsidies for the poor, but offered very few details of how he would accomplish that or, for that matter, what good they would do. The subsidy idea is a retread of an old Ahmadinejad policy, which ultimately caused more problems than it solved.

The decision to lay low was a bad choice for a candidate who remains largely unknown to a significant portion of the population. In the condensed space of the three-week campaign, Raisi cannot afford to waste opportunities to introduce himself to a wide audience on the national stage.

Early Analysis: Questions About the Conservatives

At this point, questions remain about the conservatives’ strategy for May 19. With Rouhani all but certain to lead a unified moderate and reformist coalition, conservatives still have two seemingly serious candidates fighting against one another for votes within their own party.

Reza Akbari identified the problem several days ago on Twitter:

If true, this will make the path to victory significantly more difficult for either Raisi or Qalibaf, who will have to rely on denying Rouhani a first round victory (>50% of the vote) in order to have any shot at winning in a runoff. Presumably, the damage they’ll do to each other battling for conservative votes may make it harder to consolidate the right-wing factions behind either man ahead of the second round, let alone peel away any moderate voters from the other camp.

Alternatively, Israeli commentator Meir Javedanfar floated a theory of a far more coordinated conservative plan:

Translation: “Raisi a cover candidate for Qalibaf: In the first round, Raisi develops a consensus between Principalists [conservatives], in the second round [the consensus] moves to Qalibaf. High possibility of a two-round #election.”

There isn’t much hard evidence to support either claim, but it’s difficult to see what, if anything, Raisi is doing to actively help Qalibaf’s cause. Friday’s debate certainly helped Qalibaf emerge as the early frontrunner for the conservative faction ahead of Raisi, but only by default. If Raisi is only running in support of Qalibaf rather than on his own behalf, he’s doing so much less effectively than his rivals Jahangiri and Rouhani on the opposite end of the spectrum.

I’m hoping to have more posts on the election this week as things really start to heat up. The next debate will be this Friday, May 5, and will focus [theoretically] on political issues.

Author: Jonathan Leslie

PhD candidate at School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London.

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