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

IranPolitik’s Farzan Sabet was recently featured in an article by Bloomberg Politics on the first debate in the 2017 Iranian presidential elections. His complete comments, not featured in full in the the article, can be found below.

What would you say about Rouhani’s performance? Did he stand his own? And was he convincing enough as a sitting president, in defending the government’s achievements? Who was the most convincing in your opinion and why?

Compared to his performance in the 2013 presidential election debates and the speeches he has given as president, Rouhani did not perform well. He is an experienced orator, but did not manage his time well and his responses were not sharp and to the point.

He was not convincing as a sitting president, but fortunately for him, his Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri was able to compensate for him with the strongest performance in the debate and good responses to critiques by the other candidates.

What was Jahangiri’s role in the debate? And how would you define the Rouhani-Jahangiri strategy?

The Rouhani-Jahangiri strategy appears to have at least two main elements. First, Jahangiri’s presence serves to reduce the ability of conservatives to gang up on Rouhani in the debates and portray him in a negative light. Second, while the Rouhani and Jahangiri represent one administration, by having two candidates they can broaden their appeal by speaking to different audiences. Jahangiri openly identified himself as a representative of reformists in the debate. Although not completely eliminated from the Islamic Republic’s politics, reformists have been marginalised, and it was therefore significant that Jahangiri gave them a voice by, for example, mentioning former President Mohammad Khatami, who is under a media ban.

Did Qalibaf emerge as a credible rival to Rouhani? How do you gauge his performance?

His debate performance was not bad, but by itself was not strong enough to establish him as a credible rival to President Hassan Rouhani. Ghalibaf has attempted to present himself as a different kind of conservative who can appeal not only to conservatives, but also a broader part of the electorate who might otherwise vote for more moderate candidates. What this has meant, in practice, is that his campaign has been somewhat schizophrenic. In trying to appeal to all these voters at once, he may end up not appealing strongly to very many at all.

Another issue with his debate performance (and broader campaign) is his anti-corruption and economic equality agenda, which featured in the debate, but is not very credible coming from him. The Tehran city government, under Ghalibaf’s leadership, has been implicated in a number of corruption scandals and has contributed to the ongoing inequality in the metropolis.

How did Raisi come across in the debate? How well did he perform?

As a candidate with little executive experience at a senior level and who has not spent much time in the limelight, I did not have high expectations of Ebrahim Raisi, and against this standard he performed well. He was measured and able to discuss issues in a detailed manner, although he lucked out in this regard by receiving a question on economic inequality, a subject central to his campaign and for which he has presumably prepared extensively.