Debate May Be Turning Point In Iranian Election

During a TV debate, Iranians witnessed an aggressive debate between the two main candidates. Journalist Hooman Majd is covering Iran's presidential elections. He talks with Steve Inskeep about how Iranians view this Friday's presidential contest. Majd is the author of The Ayatollah Begs to Differ.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Iranian-American writer Hooman Majd, says this is one of the time when Iranians are allowed to make their concerns visible.

Mr. HOOMAN MAJD (Author, "The Ayatollah Begs To Differ"): This is a period when people can express themselves better than they've ever expressed themselves in public. Of course, there's a couple of red lines, still, people would get into trouble if they criticize the supreme leader or if they criticized Islam itself, but beyond that it's open season on the government.

INSKEEP: So there is still no criticism of the supreme leader, the Ayatollah above Iran's president in authority. Hooman Majd traveled twice to Iran as the campaign season approach and also followed last week's debate.

Mr. MAJD: Well, actually I mean, if you read the transcripts and some other things that were quoted in the American media, the debates seemed pretty intense, and they were intense. However, there is also level of politeness. At parts they were kind of boring, just talk about things that are, I mean, kind of ambiguous plans and then policies. But the actual parts - particularly between Ahmadinejad and Mir-Hossein Mousavi, his main opponent on the reform side - the parts where they attacked each other were really kind of exhilarating and exciting and never before seen in Iran. And I think people were just riveted by the fact that here are two politicians just going at each other, you know, talking about the failures of the government and what's wrong with Iran.

INSKEEP: What specifically did they differ on in this debate?

Mr. MAJD: Well, Ahmadinejad took the opportunity, and I think that he's feeling a little vulnerable right now, polls are showing that he's slipping in popularity. He started a personal attack on Moussavi and Moussavi's wife, kind of an unprecedented attacked on his wife. He accused her - she's a chancellor of a university, she had a couple of PhDs, she's a well-known professor - he accused her of having gotten into PhD programs without having sat entrance exams, basically corruption in terms of how she got her degrees.

INSKEEP: Did Moussavi answer the charge against his wife?

Mr. MAJD: He didn't specifically answer the charges about his wife, but he got very angry, and - visibly angry and began a blistering attack on Ahmadinejad's policies including calling him a dictator. Actually he didn't say you are a dictator, you said, you're not a dictator, but your policies are dictatorial and we're going in that direction.

INSKEEP: Granting that there is a lot of heat, a lot of passion between the two main candidates, president Ahmadinejad and his main challenger Moussavi, is there a significant difference in where they would take Iran?

Mr. MAJD: I think so, yes. Moussavi is viewed a very competent economist. Most people believe that he's a competent manager, he will put competent economists in his cabinet, and that he will pursue social change as well, according to himself and his wife - which means a lot more freedom, a lot less restrictions on the media and the press. So those are the immediate things, the economy, which is primary concern to most Iranian voters, and many Iranian voters, particularly in the cities, feel that Ahmadinejad has botched the economy -with unprecedented levels of oil income, he still managed to drive the economy almost into ruin.

The second thing is of course international relations, which even though they don't seem to be directly linked, in Iran they are linked because the U.S. sanctions, the unilateral sanctions, multilateral sanctions that have been posed on Iran have in fact affected the economy - which again effects the pocketbook of the average Iranian. And of course the isolation of Iran is something that most Iranian's are uncomfortable with and would like to see more foreign investment, would like to see more business, would like to see more trade, more relations, being able to travel a little bit more freely. All those things which Moussavi has promised he will bring to Iran.

INSKEEP: Well, if President Ahmadinejad were to lose the election or to be forced into a runoff - which seems entirely possible, and which would be normal under the law in Iran - should we in the West interpret that as Iranian's saying we want a different approach to America?

Mr. MAJD: I think so. I think so. I think partly. A big part of why Ahmadinejad might lose the election is the economy at the end of the day, and that's probably the single biggest issue. But I think beyond that, because his foreign policy, at least his rhetoric on the international stage has been so belligerent and so damaging in some people's minds to Iran, and also in terms of the sanctions that have been implied, I think that then, yes, it would also be a sign that Iranian's want a different approach to relations with the United States and with the West in general.

INSKEEP: Hooman Majd is a writer for a number of publications, an author of "The Ayatollah Begs to Differ." Thanks very much.

Mr. MAJD: Thank you, Steve.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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