Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, has used a presidential TV debate to accuse the country’s powerful revolutionary guards of attempting to sabotage it’s nuclear agreement with the west by testing ballistic missiles with provocative anti-Israeli messages written on them.
The moderate cleric, who is seeking re-election in a six-man race scheduled for 19 May, came under attack about his administration’s performance in Friday’s three-hour-long televised debate focused on domestic and foreign policy.
But Rouhani defended his record, and accused his domestic opponents of rooting for Donald Trump.
“We saw what they did in order to disrupt Barjam,” Rouhani said referring to the Persian acronym for the landmark nuclear agreement. “They wrote messages on the missiles so that we won’t be able to reap its benefits,” he said, mentioning the elite force’s testing of two ballistic missiles in March 2016, just two months after sanctions were lifted.
Written on those missiles was a message in Hebrew: “Israel must vanish from the page of time.”
It was a rare criticism of the guards’ conduct in public, which underscored the president’s frustration about Iran’s parallel, unelected bodies that act independently of his government.
None of the candidates spoke of scrapping the agreements, but two powerful conservatives, Tehran mayor Mohammad-Bagher Ghaliabf and hardliner Ebrahim Raisi, said that the deal had failed to bring tangible economic benefits to Iran.
“Mr Rouhani promised that all sanctions would be lifted after Barjam, but there was no change on people’s tables. Did it solve the issue of recession and unemployment?” asked Raisi, who is running on a campaign of “work and dignity”.
Ghalibaf echoed Raisi: “What did it bring for our people? Barjam was there to improve people’s life but people say rightly that nothing has changed”.
Ghalibaf said the agreement only benefited the top 4% wealthiest in the society and not the remaining 96%, a concept he repeated many times during the debate, which Rouhani mocked as a copy of the US Occupy movement’s slogan “we are the 99%”.
Rouhani in turn asked his rivals to tell the electorate what they would do with the agreement and how they would deal with the international community.
“What were you doing behind the scenes [as we were negotiating],” Rouhani asked Raisi. “Some opponents said a lot of nonsense, they followed in the footsteps of Wahhabis, Zionists and hardline Americans in their opposition to the deal … you were opposed to the deal from the beginning and when Trump took office, you were cheering that he would tear up the agreement apart.”
Rouhani added: “If we didn’t have [the deal], our oil exports of about two million barrels per day would be reduced to 200,000 barrels per day. People should know whether you will bring back sanctions and confrontation.”
During the debate, Rouhani was helped by his first vice-president, Eshaq Jahangiri, who is also running, but is expected to drop out at last minute in favour of the president. Jahangiri said the nuclear deal was “one of the biggest achievements of our history” and that if it did not exist, “Iran’s exports would have halted.”
Jahangiri, who is allied with the reformists, has been attracting attentions since the first TV debate last week, at times stealing the show from his boss. “We need to stop another adventure in our country,” Jahangiri said. “This country cannot tolerate another tension and political novices. People should be vigilant. What sort of future do you want for your kids? Do you want restrictions or freedom? dignity or isolation? tensions or peace?”
Ghalibaf, who is emerging as Rouhani’s main challenger, attacked Rouhani on many domestic issues, seizing upon a national row involving the daughter of a government minister he alleged had smuggled clothes from Italy – a charge denied by Rouhani.
Rouhani highlighted social freedoms in the debate and criticised the state television for blacklisting the country’s most popular traditional singer, Mohammad-Reza Shajarian. “We need to continue the path of hope, we must not allow despair to prevail,” he said.