‘Reformist’ Rouhani Fights Hardliners in 2nd Iranian Presidential Debate

Supporters of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani rally in 2013 (Photo: BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images)

The second presidential debate took place in Iran and while President Rouhani came under heavy fire from hardline rivals, they all agreed on one thing: The nuclear deal is a good thing for the theocratic, jihadist Islamic Republic of Iran.

The first debate was won by Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri in a landslide, while the candidate favored by the Supreme Leader, Ebrahim Raisi, was seen as the big loser. One online poll showed that 42% said Jahangiri won, followed by 34% for Rouhani and 15% for Bagher Qalibaf. Most observers assume Jahangiri will drop out and endorse Rouhani before the vote takes place.

In this debate, Rouhani’s rivals did not criticize the deal per se but criticized him for not achieving the benefits that he said the deal would deliver. The conservatives said Rouhani has failed to exploit the economic opportunities that are now available. They also say he has favored foreign companies over domestic ones.

Raisi, for example, said, “This deal was like a check that the government has been unable to cash.” Rouhani defended his performance, pointing out that production of oil could have been 200,000 barrels per day rather than the 2 million barrels being produced now.

The most interesting exchange came when Rouhani accused the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps of undermining the nuclear deal by testing ballistic missiles and writing incendiary messages on them. He was referring to the missiles bearing “Death to Israel” on them. Rouhani was essentially admitting that, despite being president, he does not have any control over the IRGC.

The biggest blunder was committed by Mostafa Mir-Salim, a candidate from the conservative wing. He made the embarrassing error of saying that the deal resulted in the program being completely shut down. The Atomic Energy Organization of Iran subsequently corrected him. His blunder helps the other two conservative candidates, Raisi and Qalibaf, but he was always a long-shot candidate so it won’t significantly change the numbers.

Two major endorsements also came in – one for Rouhani and one for Raisi.

Former President Khatami—who served from 1997 to 2005–endorsed Rouhani for re-election. Khatami is also considered a “reformist” like Rouhani.

The Society of Seminary Teachers of Qom, a hardline establishment, endorsed Raisi. This indicates that the conservative faction of the regime and probably Supreme Leader Khamenei are standing by Raisi, despite his disappointing performance in the last debate that gave Bagher Qalibaf an opportunity to rise up as the conservative challenger to Rouhani.

The presidential “election” is obviously not democratic as each candidate had to be approved by the regime. We do not yet know if the vote tally will be altogether rigged or if Khamenei will allow a legitimate count to happen, even if he hopes Raisi comes out ahead.

Alireza Jafarzadeh, the deputy director of the U.S. office of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, told the Clarion Project that Khamenei “can settle with Rouhani, as he has proven that at the end of the day, he follows Khamenei’s orders.”

However, at present, the competition between the factions is still real, Jafarzadeh said.

“Because both factions benefit heavily economically and politically from having their own people in charge, you can see lots of infighting between the factions, none of which are about policies or substance,” he said.

The Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Iran Project says that the unelected conservative factions of the regime see the reformists as an “existential threat to their power.”

The next debate is scheduled for May 12 with the election taking place on May 19.


Ryan Mauro is ClarionProject.org’s Shillman Fellow and national security analyst and an adjunct professor of counter-terrorism. He is frequently interviewed on top-tier television and radio. To invite Ryan to speak, please contact us.

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