On Friday, in a pre-election debate over the lack of economic revival since his nuclear deal with big powers, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was challenged by rivals. He claimed that oil exports had resurged and the economy just needed more time to recover.
Elected by a landslide in 2013, Rouhani pledged to end Iran’s international isolation that had crippled the economy, and to ease restraints on society in the Islamic Republic. As he seeks re-election on May 19, his supporters voice disappointment at his performance in office.
In a debate in Tehran carried live on state TV, candidate Ebrahim Raisi, one of four sharia (Islamic law) judges who oversaw executions of thousands of political prisoners in the 1980s, asked Rouhini, “What has changed since the deal? What has changed in the day to day lives of our people?” Rouhani battles criticism that few Iranians have seen any benefits from the 2015 deal, which relieved some global sanctions, in exchange for Iran curbing its nuclear activity.
Still, all of Rouhani’s opponents said they accepted the nuclear pact as “it was a national accord”.
Tehran Mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, also a candidate, and former commander in Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards (IRGC), accused Rouhani of failing on the unemployment issue, which is estimated at 12-20 percent.
Rouhani responded that Iran’s reconnection with the global financial system after most sanctions were lifted had already been fruitful in renewed oil exports and was sure to yield jobs and boost the economy in coming years. “All the nuclear-related sanctions have been lifted. Today, we export 2 million barrels oil per day. Without the deal it would be reduced to 200,000 bpd,” said Rouhani.
Rouhani made accusations about a ballistic missile launch in 2016 by the IRGC in which “Israel must be wiped out” was written on the missiles, according to Iranian media, saying it was an attempt to derail the nuclear deal.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has predicted growth of between 4 and 5.5 percent in 2016, which is well up from the 1.3 percent it forecast before the deal, so Iran’s overall economic outlook has indeed improved since the nuclear accord.
Although they have not said how they would do so, and economists have called such promises “unrealistic”, Raisi and Qalibaf have vowed to created millions of jobs a year, if elected.
Rouhani pointed out, “These campaign promises are just slogans. You cannot reach 26 percent growth in a year … you need investment for economic progress and creation of jobs.” He added that this would come in part through his policy of opening the Islamic Republic to foreign investment. “Do not lie to people. People will have to choose between slogans and action,” he said.
Clerical Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, holds ultimate authority on matters of state in Iran. He guardedly endorsed the nuclear accord, but has said Rouhani’s economic follow-through has fallen short.
Many foreign firms remain hesitant to invest in Iran due to lingering unilateral U.S. sanctions imposed over human rights violations and alleged Iranian links to terrorism, as well as the dominating role of clerical and security institutions in the Middle East’s second largest economy, analysts say.
Dozens of activists, journalists, bloggers and artists have been jailed by a hardline judiciary, but international rights groups and activists in Iran blame Rouhani, saying he has done little to bring about greater social freedoms.
Vice President Eshagh Jahangiri is also running for election, but will campaign alongside Rouhani. He warned of a return to outright authoritarianism in Iran and isolation abroad if a hardline candidate was elected in May. “Dear people of Iran, what do you want? Do you want limitations or more freedom? Do you want international tension or peace? Isolation or integrity? By casting your vote you will determine Iran’s path,” Jahangiri said.
Analysts say Rouhani retains a strong chance of re-election. Ex-culture minister Mostafa Mirsalim and ex-vice president Mostafa Hashemitaba are also candidates.