Iran's presidential debates concluded last night with a clash between Ahmadinejad and conservative challenger Mohsen Reza'i
. The main issue of contention was the economy
, with the two sides clashing over statistics and economic data. There's no way to know how people are responding to all these dueling charts and tables. Some of Reza'i's critique would have come across as elitist inside baseball to an American electorate; however, Iranians respect technocrats and education, and Ahmadinejad has previously gone to great lengths to show that he's a deep thinker so the fate of experts within the administration and the technocratic elite outside of it could have greater resonance.
The most important aftereffects of these debates for the election at hand concern Ahmadinejad's continuing allegations about his opponents. I say continuing, because he's still not done: Today he accused his opponents of using Nazi-like tactics against him, comparing them to Nazi propaganda minister Josef Goebbels
and Adolf Hitler
, as well as threatening them with prison
. In a TV address tonight, he also accused them of working with Zionists to undermine him
In response to Ahmadinejad's allegations of corruption, former president and current Expediency Council chair Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani sent a letter of protest to Ayatollah Khamene'i
. In the letter Rafsanjani asserted that Ahmadinejad was undermining the foundations of the Islamic Republic, criticizing by implication not only those he had named, for Ayatollah Khamene'i himself, and even revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. This, he claims, has been a pattern going back to the accusations of Abbas Palizdar from last year, as covered on this site
. Rafsanjani also asserted that he had nothing to do with the campaign (hah!), and even went so far as, in the course of insisting that Ahmadinejad could not continue to operate as he has, invoked Abu al-Hassan Bani Sadr, Iran's first president, who was impeached by the Majlis at Khomeini's instigation and now lives in exile in Paris.
Rafsanjani closed by asking Khamene'i to ensure a free and fair election, and the Leader has apparently responded by naming Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri to monitor the voting process
. Nateq-Nouri is not only an Ahmadinejad opponent, but one of those whom Ahmadinejad accused by name of corruption. This suggests exactly what I've been saying previously - that Khamene'i favors Ahmadinejad, but intra-establishment politics is running at a fever pitch, and Khamene'i doesn't want to alienate himself too much from other power centers.
It's far from clear to me that all this works against Ahmadinejad. This hornet's nest was stirred up because he crossed the red line of accusing specific bigwigs of corruption. The bigwigs in question are upset, but many average Iranians probably appreciate it. Ahmadinejad beat Rafsanjani once, and could do so again if enough people perceive this election through that lens.
UPDATE: Regarding how Iranians perceive the economic debate, I should have read Gary Sick noting that Iranians know their own microeconomic situations
"President Ahmadinejad, never known for his caution or perspicacity, has used the unprecedented TV public debates with his challengers to create the image of a prosperous, growing Iran that is unrecognizable to most actual Iranians. They are suffering high inflation and unemployment, together with low job growth that keeps the talented and well educated younger generation out of the job market."
(Crossposted to American Footprints