For all the authoritarianism that has creeped into Iran's political system, particularly since the protests and crackdowns after the 2009 election, Tehran politics still have more dissent and fewer taboos than many Americans might expect. Friday's presidential debate, the third and final before an election later this month, had the candidates openly sparring on some of the country's most sensitive issues, including nuclear negotiations with the West and crackdowns on student protests.
This debate doesn't mean that whoever wins the election could singlehandedly change the country's course on these issues or would even want to, but it is a reminder that Iran's political system is not always monolithic. Such internal dissent is limited, though: A judicial body allied with the supreme leader blocked former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and others from running in the election, for example.
The debate over nuclear issues seemed to turn on a premise, emphasized by several of the candidates, that the negotiations with the West and with international institutions over Iran's nuclear program have been a failure. That's a pretty clear implicit critique of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei's emphasis on stubborn resistance to outside pressure, even if the candidates did not mention Khamenei himself. Their discussion on student protests was a little less clear, but the candidates seemed eager to distance themselves from the crackdowns, implying that, at the very least, they do believe that popular opinion is hostile to such repression. We might assume as much in the contemporary American context, but recall that in many countries, including the United States, lots of people tend to support "law and order" over protest rights during times of unrest.
Here are few interesting moments from the debates, as noted by several Iran-watchers on Twitter. As you can see, whatever the result of the election itself, most of the candidates aren't interested in just rubber-stamping Khamenei's policies. They're debating freedom of speech, nationalism, confrontation with the West, diversity and other complex issues.
Jalili on an official rant now against Velayati for his conciliatory tone on negotiations, appears a bit worked up.— Iran Pulse (@TheIranPulse) June 7, 2013
Haddad: It's not about centrifuges, it's about independence.— Iran Pulse (@TheIranPulse) June 7, 2013
Rouahani: freedom of speech brings national power. We have to build our national power first then negotiate with others.— Iran Pulse (@TheIranPulse) June 7, 2013
Rezaei: Iran is stuck between two groups, one who only chants "Resistance" and the other who says "it's over" the sanctions have ruined us.— Iran Pulse (@TheIranPulse) June 7, 2013
Jalili: The principles of our foreign policy contrasts with the principles of US. There are serious differences on Bahrain & Palestine.— Iran Pulse (@TheIranPulse) June 7, 2013
Jalili: We owe everything to two elements: Islam and the people. A strong government will use both of these elements.— Iran Pulse (@TheIranPulse) June 7, 2013
Ghalibaf and Rouahani debating crackdown on student protests. Ghalibaf says he held back the plain clothes militia.— Iran Pulse (@TheIranPulse) June 7, 2013