Dull Presidential Debates: 2021

The moderator selects a candidate's number from a bowl

In nationally televised debates, the seven candidates vying to win Iran’s presidential election offered limited insight on how they would address critical economic, diplomatic and social challenges. They invoked buzzwords – including “corruption,” “national productivity,” and “inflation” – but spent much of their allotted time criticizing each other. In one tense exchange, Mohsen Rezaei, a former Revolutionary Guards commander, threatened to put former Central Bank chief Abdolnasser Hemmati and other officials from the current Rouhani administration on trial for treason after the election and ban them from traveling abroad. The format for the three-hour debates was awkward. The moderator pulled a candidate’s number out of one glass bowl and a question out of a second bowl. Each candidate answered a different question, so the discussion offered little grounds for comparing policy.

The seven candidates are:

The seven presidential candidates
From top left to bottom right: Raisi, Rezaei, Jalili, Zakani, Ghazizadeh Hashemi, Hemmati and Mehralizadeh
  • Amir Hossein Ghazizadeh Hashemi: Four-term member of Parliament (2008 to present) representing Mashhad and Kalat district. A hardliner.
  • Abdolnasser Hemmati: Former governor of the Central Bank of Iran (2018 to 2021) and a former vice president of Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting. A political centrist.
  • Saeed Jalili: Member of the Supreme National Security Council (secretary from 2007 to 2013; supreme leader’s representative from 2014 to present), a former nuclear negotiator during the Ahmadinejad presidency (2007 to 2013), and a veteran of the Iran-Iraq War. A hardliner.
  • Mohsen Mehralizadeh: Former governor of Isfahan province (2017 to unknown), former vice president under President Mohammad Khatami (2001 to 2005), and a former Revolutionary Guards commander. A reformist.
  • Ebrahim Raisi: Judiciary chief (2019 to present), presidential candidate in 2017, deputy chief of the Assembly of Experts (2019 to present), and former prosecutor general. A hardliner.
  • Mohsen Rezaei: Secretary of the Expediency Council, presidential candidate in 2005, 2009, and 2013 and a former Revolutionary Guards commander-in-chief. A hardliner
  • Alireza Zakani: Member of parliament (from 2004 to 2016 and from 2020 to the present), medical doctor and a veteran of the Iran-Iraq War. He was twice disqualified from running in 2013 and 2017. A hardliner.
Rezaei and Zakani
Mohsen Rezaei (left) and Alireza Zakani (right) present charts during the first debate


The first debate, on June 5, focused on the economy, especially on corruption, inflation and unemployment. Some candidates used props, including charts that were often too small to read. The five conservative candidates – Ghazizadeh Hashemi, Jalili, Raisi, Rezaei, and Zakani – ganged up on Hemmati and blamed him for Iran’s myriad economic problems, including the plummeting value of the rial while he headed the Central Bank from 2018 until May 2021. Hemmati countered that the other candidates were not qualified to manage the economy. “I am an economist,” he said. “I was dismissed from the Central Bank due to my disagreement with Mr. Rouhani, but I must say that Mr. Rouhani was stronger, more political, more experienced, and with better rhetorical skills than all of you.”

Ebtekar front page
Headline in Ebtekar daily: "Sleep-inducing Debates"

During the second debate, on June 8, which was focused on social and political issues, candidates ate up time criticizing the format. Saeed Jalili said that the method of questioning “does nothing to help people choose. This is not a debate. It's more like an IQ test.” Hemmati said that the debate was like a “TV game show.”  Rezaei told the other candidates that they should “discuss our views in another way” if state television did not change the format for the third debate on June 12. The media—both reformist and conservative outlets--concurred. “Sleep-inducing Debates,” the reformist daily Ebtekar headlined its coverage of the second debate. 

During the third debate, on June 12, which was focused on voters’ problems, candidates discussed foreign policy more extensively than in the earlier debates. Raisi pledged his commitment to the 2015 nuclear deal. He warned that Hemmati would not be able to implement the accord. “It needs a powerful government to do this,” Raisi said. But Hemmati warned that Raisi or other hardliners would pursue policies that could isolate Iran. “I have no reservation to say there will be new sanctions with a stronger global consensus,” he said.

Hemmati and Raisi
Abdolnasser Hemmati hands a list of debtors to Ebrahim Raisi

The most dramatic exchange was also between Raisi and Hemmati. While discussing corruption, Raisi said that “bank arrears must be repaid” by major debtors. Hemmati walked to Raisi’s seat and presented a handwritten list of 13 debtors. Hemmati claimed that the judiciary had been given the names but so far had failed to act.

State television changed the format for the first half of the debate after criticism from the candidates and the media. Each candidate was given seven minutes to outline his administration’s vision and priorities. During the second half, however, the candidates were each asked a different question at random, as during the previous two debates.


First Debate

The following are excerpted remarks by the candidates, in alphabetical order, on the economy:

Amir Hossein Ghazizadeh Hashemi (hardliner): “Our rules about commerce, insurance, and banking should be restructured. However, now the problem is that the government’s knee is on people’s neck.”

“In our country, the officials, instead of guarding the value of the national currency, have become the guardians of foreign currency.”

Abdolnasser Hemmati

Abdolnasser Hemmati (centrist): “Let me first express regret that the capable representatives of key sectors of Iranian society are not present here, including women,” he said about the rigid vetting of candidates, which disqualified almost 600 from running.

“You (hardliners) have closed off our economy and our foreign contacts...I ask you and your friends, companies and institutions to please pull out of our economy, and then Iran's economy will surely improve.”

“Pricing should be delegated to the market. Entry into command pricing means entering into distribution of favoritism which is not controllable.”

Saeed Jalili (hardliner): “One of the problems that we have had, from an economic point of view people, is that poor people have not been given priority.”

Mohsen Mehralizadeh (reformist): “Management in my government will be rational, pragmatic and production-oriented.”

“You (Raisi) have only six years of primary education, and while respecting your seminary studies, I must say that one cannot manage the economy and draw up plans for the country with this much education.”

Ebrahim Raisi
Ebrahim Raisi

Ebrahim Raisi (hardliner): “This (outgoing Rouhani administration) is like a goalkeeper who lets in 17 goals… and then says without me it would have been 30 goals.”

“Inflation is one of the serious problems people are facing today. The price of basic products has gone up considerably.”

Mohsen Rezaei (hardliner): “The train of the revolution has turned into a scooter (due to economic decline during the Rouhani administration).”

“In the government of action and reform…..I will make use of Iranians inside and outside the country, different ethnic groups, minorities, reformists, principlists, independents and any capable person who is able to do something.”

Alireza Zakani (hardliner): “In my view Hemmati should be given a Nobel Prize in chemistry” for the deterioration of the currency and economy when he headed the Central Bank.  “Eighty five million people are against you.”


Second Debate

The second debate broadly focused on social and political issues, but the candidates often diverted to discuss the economy, trade barbs, or criticize the debate format. The following are excerpted remarks by the candidates in alphabetical order.

Amir Hossein Ghazizadeh Hashemi (hardliner): “Our television never reports on how low their death tolls are in North Korea, Vietnam or China.” The high death toll from the COVID-19 pandemic was “unjustifiable.”

Abdolnasser Hemmati (centrist): Describing himself as “the voice of the voiceless, the power of the powerless, ” he said, “Control over people’s lives should be lifted.”

Saeed Jalili
Saeed Jalili

Saeed Jalili (hardliner): The Rouhani administration blamed other countries for Iran’s problems. “One time Trump was the excuse, another time the nuclear deal.”

Mohsen Mehralizadeh (reformist): Forces in Iran have “moved the sun and the moon to make one man (Raisi) president.”

“There are seven million people with no stable income, out of which three million have no income and rely on charity.”

Ebrahim Raisi (hardliner): “Any elected government should prioritize lifting sanctions. But we shouldn’t allow sanctions to affect our economy.”

“People’s living conditions have been badly damaged. People’s businesses have been gravely damaged. People’s trust in the government has been severely damaged and is maybe at the lowest level in years.”

Mohsen Rezaei (hardliner): “Mafia kings are like vacuum cleaners and vacuuming up all the country’s resources (under Rouhani’s government).”

Alireza Zakani (hardliner): “My government will serve the people, and I will distribute wealth fairly. I will confront those involved in economic corruption; our enemy is poverty, corruption, and discrimination.”

Special measures need to be taken to address population growth and the low fertility rate, which has reached a “critical point.”


Third Debate

The third debate broadly focused on people’s problems. Candidates discussed how they would lower prices of consumer goods, fight corruption, overhaul the bureaucracy, and improve Iran’s standing in the world. The following are excerpted remarks by the candidates in alphabetical order.

Amir Hossein Ghazizadeh Hashemi (hardliner): “The Leader of the Islamic Revolution gave an extraordinary opportunity to negotiate with the United States, but the (Rouhani) government ruined it.”

“A comprehensive system of transparency will be established with an electronic government (by using technology to more efficiently deliver services).”

Abdolnasser Hemmati (centrist): “Iran must engage in trade with rest of the world; it cannot survive individually.”

What happened to our youth during these 12 years that changed their chants from 'Where is my vote?' to 'No way I'm voting'?”

“With all due respect to his (Raisi’s) religious studies, the country needs a person who can extricate it from the deep economic crisis caused by the regime’s failed policies and management.”

Saeed Jalili (hardliner): “The JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) is bad cheque.”

“People are concerned about price fluctuations.”

Mohsen Mehralizadeh (reformist): “A couple of days ago Mr Raisi staged a showoff (rally) and gathered thousands…I'm afraid instead of becoming the president of the impoverished, he will now become the president of the dead.”

“I think one of the people's major concerns is the loss of trust in officials and the government [as a whole]… Iran is suffering from problems ranging from lack of transparency, brain drain, corruption.”

“The stock exchange plays an important role in the economy of the country; it should be left in the hands of investors.”  

Ebrahim Raisi (hardliner): “We will abide by the JCPOA, which the supreme leader approved, but you (Hemmati) cannot implement it. Implementing the JCPOA requires a strong government.”

Most people who demonstrated against the gas price hike in 2019 “have been pardoned by the supreme leader, except those who had relations with other countries or had other issues.”

Mohsen Rezaei (hardliner): Iran must “flip the table, or at least slap the table” in response to the U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear deal and reimposition of sanctions.

President Rouhani’s government is run by “infiltrators.”

Alireza Zakani (hardliner): Hemmati committed “huge treason” by sharing Iran’s financial information with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). In March 2020, Iran requested a $5 billion IMF loan as it coped with the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Fifty-two percent inflation is a disaster that is the result of the performance of the Rouhani administration. Mr. Hemmati should also answer about high liquidity.”


Garrett Nada, managing editor of The Iran Primer at the U.S. Institute of Peace, and Julia Dickson, a research assistant at the Woodrow Wilson Center, compiled this report. 


Photos of candidates via Iran Front Pages (CC By 4.0); Hemmati and Raisi via Young Journalists Club

Some of the information in this article was originally published on June 9, 2021.