Iran hard-liners target sole moderate in presidential debate

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iran’s seven presidential candidates offered starkly different views Saturday in the country’s final debate, with hard-liners describing those seeking ties with the West as “infiltrators” and the race’s sole moderate warning a hard-line government would only bring more sanctions for the Islamic Republic.

Analysts and state-linked polling put hard-line judiciary chief Ebrahim Raisi as the clear front-runner in Friday’s upcoming vote, with the public now largely hostile to the relative moderate President Hassan Rouhani after the collapse of Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers.

But that didn’t stop Rouhani’s former Central Bank chief Abdolnasser Hemmati from harshly criticizing Raisi, at one point getting up from his chair to hand him a list he described as naming individuals who haven’t paid back huge loans from state banks. He again tried to link Raisi to former President Donald Trump, whose decision to unilaterally withdraw America from Iran’s nuclear deal has seen the country crushed by sanctions.

“Mr. Raisi, you and your friends have played in Trump’s ground with your extremist policies,” Hemmati said.

For his part, Raisi said he’d make sure the government returns to the nuclear deal.

The deal “would not be executed by you, it needs a powerful government to do this,” Raisi said.

The election Friday will see voters pick a candidate to replace Rouhani, who is term limited from running again. The vote comes amid tensions with the West as negotiations continue to try and resuscitate the nuclear deal, which saw Iran agree to limit its enrichment of uranium in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions.

The structure of the previous two debates — having candidates answer questions selected at random from large fish bowls — largely prevented aspirants from uniformly offering their opinions. Apparently acknowledging public unhappiness with that, the moderator gave the candidates all the same question this time.

The debate later took on the pattern of the previous ones, with hard-liners focusing their criticism on Hemmati as a stand-in for Rouhani. Hard-liner Alireza Zakani went as far to accuse Hemmati of committing a “huge treason” by sharing financial information to the International Monetary Fund. Hard-line former Revolutionary Guard chief Mohsen Rezaei described the Rouhani government as being run by “infiltrators.”

Hemmati, who raised eyebrows in recent days after telling The Associated Press in an interview he’d be potentially willing to speak with President Joe Biden, said his government would not view Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates as enemies. He also warned that without deals with the wider world, Iran’s economy would see no growth.

“What will happen if the hard-liners have power?” Hemmati asked. “I tell you there is going to be more sanctions with global consensus.”