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Iran’s Rouhani defends record after presidential candidates mock him in debate

Outgoing president criticizes hardliners over women’s rights, internet censorship in response to their attacks over ‘hope’ campaign surrounding now-tattered 2015 nuke deal

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani meets with Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney, in Tehran, Iran, March 7, 2021. (Iranian Presidency Office via AP)
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani meets with Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney, in Tehran, Iran, March 7, 2021. (Iranian Presidency Office via AP)

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iran’s president angrily defended himself Wednesday after coming under harsh attack during a presidential election debate the night before, saying his critics’ “love for power causes memory loss.”

Hassan Rouhani, the relatively moderate cleric who has been Iran’s civilian leader for eight years, is now term-limited from seeking office again. During Iran’s second presidential debate Tuesday, hardliners repeatedly mocked the Rouhani administration’s “hope” campaign that surrounded its now-tattered 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.

Rouhani made a point to target them during his televised cabinet meeting, his tone moving between an angry attack and a mocking tone.

His signature nuclear deal, which saw Iran eager to limit its atomic program in exchange for sanctions relief, fell apart after then-US President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew America from the accord in 2018. That has worsened Iran’s already-anemic economy by largely stopping its international oil sales, hiking inflation and weakening its rial currency.

Leading presidential candidate Ebrahim Raisi, center, leaves as other candidates Alireza Zakani, left, Mohsen Mehralizadeh, center at rear, and Amir Hossein Ghazizadeh Hashemi, are seen at the conclusion of their second TV debate in a state-run TV studio, in Tehran, Iran, June 8, 2021. (Morteza Fakhri Nezhad/ Young Journalists Club, YJC via AP)

“In the debates, it was clarified that only the administration suffers from problems and the parts [of government] are blameless,” Rouhani said, his remarks likely targeting hardline judiciary chief Ebrahim Raisi, widely believed to be the contest’s front-runner.

Rouhani went on to criticize hardliners on women’s rights and censorship of the internet in Iran, two issues former Central Bank chief Abdolnasser Hemmati focused on Raisi during the three-hour debate. While Hemmati has tried to distance himself from Rouhani, he’s widely perceived as the candidate representing the president’s administration.

“Nobody dares to say that he supports blocking the internet,” Rouhani mockingly said.

Rouhani went onto say that hardliners, who for years criticized the nuclear deal, should be put on the spot about whether they want sanctions relief through a return to the accord.

This combination of pictures created on shows from top L to R: Iranian presidential candidate Amirhossein Ghazizadeh-Hashemi, Iranian judiciary chief Ebrahim Raisi, Irannian former chief of the Revolutionary Guards Mohsen Rezai, former Iranian vice president Mohsen Mehralizadeh, the head of Iran’s Central Bank Naser Hemati (Hemmati), conservative presidential candidate, Alireza Zakani, and former top nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili. (Photos by ATTA KENARE / AFP)

“Say you do not want to return to the deal if you have such an idea,” he said. Raisi, a favorite of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, on Tuesday discussed the need to “remove oppressive sanctions,” suggesting he’d back returning to the nuclear deal

The election comes amid tensions with the West as negotiations continue to try and resuscitate the nuclear deal.

Iranian authorities hope to boost turnout in the June 18 poll, held by officials as a sign of confidence in the theocracy since the country’s 1979 Islamic Revolution. The state-linked Iranian Student Polling Agency has projected a 38 percent turnout from the country’s 59 million eligible voters, which would be a historic low amid a lack of enthusiasm by voters and the coronavirus pandemic.

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