Iran’s Presidential Candidates Fiddle as the Economy Burns
In the third and last debate before Iran’s May 19 presidential election, all six candidates said that the country’s economy was in ruins.
“Iran’s economy is headed toward collapse,” said Eshagh Jahangiri, a vice president who is competing for his boss, Hassan Rouhani’s, position. Jahangiri said that one reason for Iran’s poor economy is the existence of a smuggling market valued at $12 billion annually.
Ebrahim Raisi, an extremist candidate known as the “massacre ayatollah,” corrected the numbers. “The value of the smuggling market is $18 billion annually,” he said.
Another candidate, Mostafa Hashemi-Taba, also jumped in to comment on the issue. “Smuggled goods are imported via 114 official piers. This situation would not be understandable anywhere in the world,” he said.
The bankruptcy of the Iranian banking system was another sensitive topic during the debate. In Iran, 14 out of every 31 government and private banks are practically bankrupt, and yet the government avoids officially publicizing the matter. The candidates even mentioned some of the banks by name, including Saderat Bank, Ghavamin Bank, Tejarat Bank and Sarmayeh Bank.
The debate also set the stage for the revelation that some of the candidates and their relatives are among the owners or directors of various Iranian banks. Gardeshgari Bank belongs to Jahangiri’s brother, Sarmayeh Bank belongs to candidate Bagher Ghalibaf, and the Mizan Credit Institute belongs to Raisi.
One of the reasons behind Iranian banks going bankrupt is huge loans provided to senior government officials, which are often never paid back. Jahangiri said, for example, that affiliates of the Revolutionary Guard “took bank resources and didn’t pay [them] back.”
Mostafa Mirsalim, another candidate, shed more light on this matter. “190 of the banks’ main borrowers are people who are close to the government,” he emphasized.
The candidates also clashed over each other’s role in embezzling state property.
“According to the State Inspectorate Organization, Ghalibaf provided his relatives [with] state-owned assets worth $600 million,” Jahangiri said.
In response, Ghalibaf presented two documents showing how the incumbent president, Hassan Rouhani, and Jahangiri acquired realty in Tehran at shockingly low prices.
“Mr. Ghalibaf, when due to the 2012 sanctions people were searching everywhere for medicine, you served $400 ice cream in Tehran’s Milad Tower — to whom?” Jahangiri asked in a counterattack.
The debate then moved on to the miserable state of Iran’s industrial sector.
“70 percent of the country’s industrial complexes have been shut down,” Mirsalim said. Jahangiri rejected these figures, only to allow Raisi to provide an even more shocking figure.
“250,000 small workshops such as clothing, shoes and bag production centers have been closed down, and their workers are now unemployed. The problem facing these workshops is the lack of funds,” he said.
Hashemi-Taba changed the subject by pointing to the state of the environment.
“What have we done to Iran? Iran offered its oil, gas, water, soil, forests, air and rivers to us. But we destroyed them. Unemployment is rising with each passing day,” he said, estimating that that the number of workshops closed is “tens of thousands.”
Ghalibaf jumped in to add to these remarks.
“There is no house in Iran where at least one person is not out of a job … the number of unemployed people is between 6 to 7 million,” he said.
Raisi, meanwhile, tapped into the sensitive issue of general poverty. “According to officials, in the past, 23% of the population was impoverished. Today, this number stands at 33%. What do we have to do?” he asked.
While all six candidates (one has since dropped out) revealed shocking facts about one another during their verbal quarrels, they were all very careful not to refer to the most important destructive cause of Iran’s economy: the Revolutionary Guard’s domination of the economic sector, as well as cartels affiliated with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. In addition, Tehran is also wasting a major part of the country’s revenue in wars in Syria, Iraq and Yemen.
Mohammad Amin (@EconomieIran) is a senior research fellow for the Paris-based Foundation d’Etudes pour le Moyen-Orient (FEMO) — or Foundation for the Study of the Middle East. He has written several books and essays about the ruling theocracy in Iran, the transformation of Iran’s political economy under the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the Middle East.