Iran's presidential contenders are seen participating in a TV debate, in a state-run studio, June 5, 2013. (AP)

A televised debate this week between candidates for Iran’s presidential election to be held on June 14 seems to have failed to inspire much voter confidence that this year’s poll would offer any solutions to the country’s economic woes or international isolation.

Iran’s leadership is trying to influence the outcome of the poll by curtailing debate on key issues and harassing supporters of some of the candidates. It is still uncertain who will emerge victorious, but it is becoming clear that this year’s election will be marked by low voter participation.

Hassan Rowhani, the most prominent of the candidates with a moderate leaning, Mohammed Reza Aref, an academic, and Mohsen Rezaei, a former commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), were faced with simple yes or no answers and at times were asked to reflect on images of agricultural or industrial scenes. None of the eight candidates participating outlined specific policies on how they would improve Iran’s economic situation or resolve tensions over its nuclear program.

insight eiu new INSIGHT: Iran Presidential Debate Falls Short on SubstancePressure on moderate candidates

A pragmatic conservative and former chief nuclear negotiator, Rowhani has stood out in offering a strong defense of negotiations as a potential way to resolve international disagreements, while Aref, a reformist, has criticized the house arrests of 2009 reformist candidates.

Of all the candidates, Rowhani has come closest to confronting the serious challenges Iran faces over its nuclear program – as negotiations with the West make no progress – and over growing Shia-Sunni regional tension centered on the civil war in Syria.

State television coverage of politics is traditionally widely watched by voters, and both Rowhani and Aref have used appearances to distance themselves from the principlist, or hardline, conservatives.

“The mood on the ground is restrained, with few posters and limited evidence of serious campaign organization outside Tehran.” – The Economist Intelligence Unit

In a spirited performance in which he confronted his interviewer several times, Rowhani defended the way he conducted nuclear negotiations in 2003‑05, arguing that he managed to prevent Iran’s referral to the U.N. Security Council and that he successfully exploited gaps between the U.S. and the E.U.

Aref has defended the government of moderate president Mohammed Khatami (1997‑2005), when Aref was vice president, and critizised the continuing house arrest of 2009 reformist candidates Mir‑Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karrubi. A portion of one of his speeches on state‑run television was cut off, while Rezaei, a principlist who has sometimes shown an independent streak, has complained that parts of his first campaign-related interview on state‑run television were censored. The day after the presidential debate, members of Rowhani’s campaign team were arrested during an election rally.

Exclusions, consequences still uncertain

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Supporters of Iranian presidential candidate Mohsen Rezaei, a former commander of Iran's Revolutionary Guard, hold his posters during a street campaign, in Tehran June 6, 2013.

The exclusion by Iran’s constitutional watchdog, the Guardian Council, of two leading would‑be candidates – Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former president and historic figure in the development of the Islamic Republic, and Rahim Esfandiar Mashaei, a top aide to the outgoing president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – has so far not provoked significant unrest and their absence may be contributing to the relatively muted campaigning so far. There had been speculation that if Mashaei were barred from running, Ahmadinejad would reveal evidence of corruption in high places or even call supporters onto the streets in protest. It is possible that the president has reached some kind of agreement to support Saeed Jalili, Iran’s current chief nuclear negotiator, who appears to be the leading principlist conservative candidate. Jalili has also gained the backing of Kamran Lankarani, Ahmadinejad’s former health minister, who withdrew from the election before the Guardian Council announced the eight-strong shortlist.

In a meeting this week with members of parliament, the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, publicly thanked all candidates for their conduct but “especially those who were not approved,” a possible reference to Mashaei. Rafsanjani has not as yet given public backing to any other candidate, although it is possible that he may endorse Rowhani, whose outlook he shares on crucial issues. The divided reformist camp – some of whose leading figures, including Khatami, were backing Rafsanjani – has yet to endorse any candidate, with some favoring an electoral boycott.

Voter mood subdued

The mood on the ground is restrained, with few posters and limited evidence of serious campaign organization outside Tehran. This may be a result of a lack of interest among voters, given the limited choice in the field, but it also reflects a tendency in Iran for campaigns to be short with many voters late to make up their minds.

With inflation estimated at over 40 percent in the first quarter and unemployment at 13 percent, the economy will be the main issue for many voters. But the growing impact of sanctions (which have halved Iran’s oil exports in the past year) makes the international situation part of the economic debate. Participation in Iranian elections tends to be relatively high: 64 percent in 2005 and officially 85 percent in the disputed 2009 election. A strong turnout in this election would help Ayatollah Khamenei claim that public support for the regime exists, which would harden the country’s resolve in negotiations over the nuclear issue. However, if the turnout is low, as observers expect, it is unlikely to lead to a reappraisal of nuclear strategy.

Field likely to thin out

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An Iranian man holds posters of presidential candidate Saeed Jalili, who is also Iran's top nuclear negotiator, in a street campaign in Tehran June 6, 2013.

It is unlikely that all eight candidates will remain in the field, given election rules that require a two-person run-off ballot if no one achieves more than 50 percent in the initial round on June 14. Still to be implemented is an earlier agreement of the “2+1 Group” – which comprises a former foreign minister, Ali‑Akbar Velayati, the mayor of Tehran, Mohammed Baqr Qalibaf, and a former speaker of parliament, Gholam Ali Haddad‑Adel – that two would withdraw in favor of the best-placed of the three.

Anecdotal reports suggest that Qalibaf is attracting support in Tehran, where he has been mayor since 2005 and carried out many high‑profile projects, and in his home province of Razavi Khorasan, in the north‑east.
Jalili appears to be the most likely to be supported by figures within the regime given his hardline position during nuclear negotiations, and he now has the backing of influential clerics. But Jalili, although pious and reportedly modest in his lifestyle, is considered an uncharismatic and even dour figure.

Grim outlook

No matter who succeeds Ahmadinejad as president, the immediate outlook for Iran’s economy remains grim. There appears to be little appetite among either the U.S. or its European allies to ease the most damaging sanctions on Iran’s central bank or its oil sales. Likewise, the main buyers of Iranian crude, mostly Asian nations, continue to reduce their volumes to avoid falling foul of sanctions. Any candidate who openly backs compromise during negotiations over the nuclear issue would lose his nationalist credentials and face tough opposition from institutions like the IRGC with economic links to the nuclear program.

This post has been authored exclusively for MEV by The Economist Intelligence Unit.

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 INSIGHT: Iran Presidential Debate Falls Short on Substance

The Economist Intelligence Unit

This post has been authored by experts of The Economist Intelligence Unit.