The Third Debate was more focused than the previous two, with most of the candidates seeking to be less antagonistic towards each other and more focused on explaining their policies and pointing out the shortcomings of their rivals’ policies At the beginning of the debate, the moderator announced that the seven most important issues nominated by the general public for this debate were housing, employment, unemployment, inflation, justice, subsidies and corruption. Interestingly, neither sanctions nor COVID were raised as top issues by the general public. The debate focused mainly, therefore, on economic issues, particularly inflation, as well as accountability and internet filtering.
Amir-Hossein Ghazizadeh Hashemi, who has become a viable candidate in some polls, pointed to his relative youth (as opposed to most of the other candidates) and said that he represented generational change. He said “Dear people of Iran, to entrust the management and solving of today’s problems to the very people who created the current situation is like entrusting the treatment of malaria to mosquitoes or the treatment of COVID to the virus itself”.
Ebrahim Raisi seemed much more prepared than in previous debates, and used his non-executive experience to his advantage, pointing to his involvement in building local business while head of the Imam Reza Shrine in Mashhad and emphasising his role in fighting crime and corruption while Chief Justice. Raisi was much more coherent and articulate when taking on his main challenger, former Central Bank governor Abdol-Naser Hemmati, by centring his narrative on the slogan that “banks are a barrier to production”.
After Raisi said that “bank arrears must be repaid”, Hemmati produced a handwritten list of 13 names of those in arrears, to which Raisi said “We had previously published the names of the bank debtors given by Mr Hemmati. If Mr Hemmati had the list of bank super-debtors, why hadn’t he handed it over to the judiciary so far? Why did they bring it to us in the debate?” Hemmati responded that the names had been provided to the judiciary and accused them of not acting swiftly before trying to break Raisi’s image of a strong judicial manager by saying “Mr Raisi, the economy is not like a court and a judge”.
Mohsen Rezaei did not perform particularly well, but centred his speeches on imager of Iran needing two major surgeries: for its governance and its economy. When asked how he would fund his centrepiece policy of a monthly 450 thousand toman subsidy, he stumbled, saying “don’t worry where I get the money from, as long as there is not theft, it’s not a problem”
Saeed Jalili asked more rhetorical questions than he gave rhetorical answers, but he developed his narrative around having the most extensive planning, saying “Iran needs a plan – if you want to weave an Iranian rug, you need a comprehensive plan to weave it row by row, knot by knot”.
Abdol-Naser Hemmati placed the responsibilities of Iran’s economic failures on the behaviour of hardliners, who had caused the sanctions which now cost the economy 16 billion annually. In differentiating himself from Raisi, Hemmati said “tell me, what will happen if power falls into the hands of the extremists? I can easily say that more sanctions will be imposed”.
Hemmati also accused the hardliners (meaning all other candidates except for Mehr-Alizadeh) of turning Iran’s neighbours into enemies, naming Saudi Arabia and UAE specifically, of creating alliances that brought no economic benefit to Iran, specifically naming Iraq and China, and sabotaging agreements that benefit Iran, specifically the FATF and JCPOA.
Jalili had said “the signing of conventions, including the FATF, is of no benefit to the country” to which Hemmati retorted “Mr Jalili and North Korea are the only ones saying that the FATF is useless. Does that mean 200 other countries do not understand this? Let the country breathe!”. Raisi said he was supportive of the JCPOA, although the agreement would be better under a “strong government”, a reference to his slogan “a people’s government for a strong Iran”.
Ali-Reza Zakani focused his speeches on what he called the three “n”s of Iran’s failures: not knowing, not wanting, not being able. Zakani also produced a letter which supposedly showed Hemmati as a key supporter of the petrol price rise of 2019, which led to protests which were violently suppressed, which ran contrary to Hemmati’s own claims of opposition to the price rise. Mohsen Mehr-Alizadeh took a similar road to Hemmati, saying the problems that Iran faces stem from the fact that everything is politicised: “our economy and our livelihoods suffer because of politicisation”
Mehr-Alizadeh also continued to lobby on ethnic issues, which had been a feature of the second debate in particular, arguing that local languages should be permitted for use in regional universities and the press, posing the question “is there equality between ethnic groups in Iran?” Other candidates avoided the issue, although Rezaei said that his plan for Iran’s development was all inclusive and Ghazizadeh blamed a rise in ethnic dissatisfaction on the decline of family. Mehr-Alizadeh criticised treatment of Sunnis in Iran, particularly the ban on Sunni seminaries and Sunni mosques in places like Tehran. As soon as the debate finished, the most senior Sunni leader in Iran, Molavi Abdol-Hamid, announced his support for Raisi.
Internet filtering became a means of discussing social issues, with Hemmati criticising Raisi’s mention of “safe filtering” saying that “safe filtering means closing Instagram”. Hemmati also tried to bring the discussion of women’s rights on to the agenda in a roundabout way, since it was clear the candidates may have been warned after the last debate. Hemmati asked Raisi if he agreed with the Friday Imam of Mashhad, Ahmad Alam-ol-Hoda (who is also Raisi’s father-in-law), and his views on women. Alam-ol-Hoda’s Instagram account was recently suspended. Raisi said he had not introduced any new filtering while Chief Justice. While Zakani said “Mr Hemmati, why are you talking about filtering? You closed your Instagram comments until yesterday. You do not dare to talk to people”.