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Foreign policy dominates Iran debates

Last Friday, Iran held the third and last presidential debate before polling today.


Unlike the previous two debates, the question of Iranian foreign policy took centre-stage. This turned the debate into one of the most animated political clashes aired on Iranian state-run television in years.

Exchanges were so heated that the candidates were later accused of having revealed national secrets during the debate. One candidate linked with the reformist movement, Hassan Rouhani, has since been warned that he may be barred from running in the elections because of confidential material he revealed about Iran’s nuclear programme during the two hour-long debate.

Critics will dismiss the presidential debates held in Teheran as mere theatrics. The eight candidates (now six after Gholam-Ali Haddad-Adel and Mohammad Reza Aref withdrew this week) have, after all, been carefully approved by the Guardian Council — the regime’s top vetting agency — and cannot therefore be considered as individuals likely or able to greatly shift the trajectory of the foreign policy of the Islamic Republic.

From the perspective of the critics, the elections today are just window-dressing by Iran’s Supreme Leader, the unelected Ayatollah Ali Khamenei whose stringent Islamism and anti-Western worldview has characterised his tenure since he came to power in 1989.

The reservations held by the critics are perfectly justified. Today’s elections are undeniably tightly orchestrated. Some 678 individual hopefuls were after all barred to even enter the race.

Nevertheless, there is also no doubt that the eight men who were admitted to the race do not see eye-to-eye about the regime’s foreign policy record or the best path ahead for this large Middle Eastern country of 76 million people.

In this third debate, the then-eight candidates threw some convincing punches, smearing the record and policy plans of each other in a spiteful battle to lead the pack. The conventional fault line separating reformists from hardline candidates was very hard to detect, with the most bitter exchanges taking place among hardliners.

One of the most heated exchanges took place between Ali Akbar Velayati, foreign minister from 1981 to 1997, and Saeed Jalili, who is judged by many to be favoured by Ayatollah Khamenei.

Jalili has been leading Iran’s nuclear negotiation team since 2007. Velayati questioned Jalili’s diplomatic aptitude, accusing his team of pointless intransigence when negotiating with the world powers about Iran’s nuclear programme.

“Negotiations are about give-and-take and not about reading out loud your own manifesto,” Velayati shouted at Jalili.

Velayati’s charge was remarkable because the bland Jalili — who has no political base of his own — has over the years been regarded to simply represent the views of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei.

Meanwhile, all the candidates agreed that Teheran has to adjust its nuclear posture during negotiations, but no one raised the logic behind having the programme in the first place. That would be breaking one taboo too many and Ayatollah Khamenei has made it clear he will not allow the regime to give up the programme.

Another taboo that was nearly broken came when Mohsen Rezaei, a long-time former commander of Iran’s feared Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), accused Jalili of having wasted an opportunity to reach a compromise with the Americans when the two sides met in Baghdad in May 2012.

Here was Rezaei, who led the IRGC when Jalili was barely a teenager in the heyday of Iran’s anti-Americanism in the early 1980s, speaking of not only meeting with the Americans, but compromising with them as well.

No one would have blamed Rezaei if he had argued for less interaction with the world. Rezaei is after all the only candidate for whom there is a valid “Red Notice” — issued by Interpol at the request of Argentina, for his alleged role in the 1994 terrorist attack against a Jewish cultural centre in Buenos Aires. And yet even Rezaei argued against Iranian isolationism.

Among the candidates, points of agreement were few and far between but all eight men agreed on one point: that the eight-year record of sitting President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had been a disaster for Iran.

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