Mousavi vs Ahmadinejad: Examining Iran's First Major Presidential Debate

June 9, 2009
Supporters rally for Mir-Hossein Mousavi on June 9, 2009 (Photo by Shahram Sharif, available at Flickr)


IranTracker provides a summary of the most important debate in the Iranian election, and provides here a transcript of the debate.


On June 3, 2009, the two leading contenders for the Iranian presidential election, which will occur on June 12, tangled live on national Iranian television for over eighty minutes. Unprecedented in Iranian electoral history, the debate allowed Mahmoud Ahmadinejadand Mir-Hossein Mousavi to criticize each other while making the cases for their candidacies. The debate featured back-and-forth dialogue, personal attacks, rebuttals of issue-based criticism, and other elements reminiscent of elections held in more democratic countries (the unelected Guardian Council chose the four candidates eligible for the presidency in this election from 476 applicants - see more in Ali Alfoneh's work on this subject here).

Ahmadinejad, the incumbent, focused on attacking and responding to criticisms from his opponent, stating that he has become the target of a persecution campaign. Ahmadinejad’s argument centered on Mousavi’s record as Iran’s prime minister from 1981 to 1989. He also attacked the presidencies of his opponent’s supporters, Mohammad Khatami and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

Mousavi, who according to the polls is the strongest challenger in the election, attacked Ahmadinejad’s tenure as president, concentrating on the incumbent regime’s foreign policy, censorship policies, economic record, and denial of the Holocaust.

Ahmadinejad responded to Mousavi’s charge that Ahmadinejad's foreign policy “adventurism”  had "humiliated" Iran by arguing that, as shown by the perseverance of Iran’s nuclear program, his regime has brought more pride to Iran than any other Iranian presidency.

Respect among Third World nations, argued Ahmadinejad, ranks as more important than kowtowing to “three or four major powers”, citing as evidence the support expressed for Iran’s nuclear program by the 118 members of the Non-Aligned Movement (see more on the NAM's relations with Iran here). Ahmadinejad alleged that former US President Bush threatened Iran with military action; he said that the failure to follow through on this alleged threat or the Bush administration’s label of Iran as a member of the axis of evil proved Iran’s strength on the world stage.

On the Holocaust, Ahmadinejad argued that he had stated his own personal position, which Iran’s Supreme Leader and the Iranian people had accepted. He stated moreover that Mousavi had done far worse while prime minister by arguing that Iranian troops should fight the “occupiers” in Palestine.

Mousavi stated that the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) service was “at your disposal” when speaking to Ahmadinejad. Ahmadinejad responded to such criticism by stating that his government had never closed down a newspaper, while Mousavi had frequently criticized a newspaper that had harangued him when he served as prime minister. Ahmadinejad also claimed that Mousavi published the names of parliamentarians who had voted against Mousavi in a private vote.

Mousavi, in an attempt to highlight an issue resonant with Iranians beset by a deepening national economic crisis, cited Iran’s 25 percent inflation as emblematic of Ahmadinejad’s poor economic stewardship; he also claimed Ahmadinejad had dismissed a budget planning organization that could have helped right Iran’s economic ship. Ahmadinejad responded by saying inflation under Mousavi reached twice that figure and that Iran was in a far better economic position today.

Trying to link Mousavi with the failures of Ahmadinejad’s predecessors, Ahmadinejad claimed Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was the one leader truly behind Mousavi’s campaign. Mousavi replied to such criticism throughout, asking why Ahmadinejad criticized individuals who were not at the debate.

Ahmadinejad closed by discussing Mousavi’s wife, claiming she won her PhD illegitimately through the corruption he accused Mousavi, Rafsanjani, and Khatami of throughout the debate. Such criticism went beyond earlier personal attacks when Ahmadinejad claimed that Mousavi had only visited four or five provinces during his electoral campaign and that Mousavi did not visit Iran’s clerics while in power.

The debate may have already shifted popular Iranian opinion: an Alef News Agency poll claimed Ahmadinejad’s support climbed to 63 percent from 51 percent prior to the event.


Key Quotes:

Ahmadinejad defending his foreign policy:

“One of the best things that the Islamic Republic has done was its attitude toward those British sailors. For twenty-seven, eight years, including Mr. Mousavi’s era, they call us anti-human, they call us aggressors and hostage takers. This is what they told the world about us. There, in that incident, we separated the people of England from the government of England. That was the best thing that could be [done]. “

“Regarding the occupied Palestine, Mr. Mousavi should remember his own stances in the past. Mr. Mousavi had explicitly announced that we will send military forces to go stand alongside the Palestinian resistance to fight against the occupiers. Mr. Mousavi announced that the Zionist regime must be wiped out.”

“And I’m surprised, if Mr. Mousavi takes a trip outside of Iran he can see how he is greeted by Third World nations? How many foreign ministers did he [meet] as Prime Minster? Was Iran humiliated then? We were also respected then, but in the eyes of bullying powers, it was not so. If Mr. Mousavi thinks that we should try to favor and please three or four major powers, this is against the late Imam’s ideas and the values of the Islamic Revolution and our independence.”

Mousavi on Ahmadinejad’s foreign policy:

“You know, the release of the British marines. You know, the marines invaded or encroached upon Iranian waters and then the forces arrested them. It was a great job and should be acknowledged indeed. But, immediately on the basis of the framework I mentioned, in the first place we said that we have to execute them. Why did they have encroached on Iranian territory or waters? And we created a crisis and then we decided to give them suits to wear, and then our president whose status doesn’t belongs to himself, it belongs to the people, it belongs to you, and then he went there and sold them off and said goodbye to them and then arranged a ceremony that we don’t even organize for the heads of other countries.

Did it really preserve the dignity of our nation? I don’t think so. It inflicted a loss and indeed it undermined the dignity of the Iranian nation, and it created some ups and downs in our foreign policy [for which we] will costly pay. We cannot solve our problems.”

Ahmadinejad as the victim:

“At the beginning I would like to make some complaints about some unfair, and let’s call it, cruel attitude and approaches and some great lies and sabotaging against the government. In the history after the Islamic revolution, we never had this, be it in the term of one single government or in the course of an election. We never saw any heavy attack and wave of criticism launched against any government.”

“Four years, I tolerated all this.  I tolerated all the insults directed at me myself. I forgave it all; I still like to forgive all this.”

Mousavi on Ahmadinejad’s governance style:

“That in solving the problems of the country and in order to achieve the proper place—in our proper place, I think that there are two ways. There can be two methods of management in this regard. One is on the basis of adventurism and instability and exhibitionism and raising slogans, imaginative moves and also superstition and the basis of selfishness, self-centeredness, and not abiding by the rule of law and also on the basis of going to extremes. So I’m going to just base my discussion on the basis of this framework. Okay. Another method is very logical and professional moves away from superstition also on the basis of [inaudible], faithfulness, relying on the collective wisdom and being futuristic and also on the basis of moderation. If we want to have a powerful Iran, I think that the second method is more suitable.”

“Whether the government is not responsible against being an Iranian and against Iran, I say that in this regard, the government has been negligent of these problems which are the problems of the people. I really pity the people with these policies and with the calamities we are imposing on them.”

Mousavi on freedom of the press and the rule of law:

“What are we doing, and how are we dealing with the university students, with the people? Whenever I go there is protest, wherever I go they say we have been humiliated, we have been arrested, we have been expelled from university and so on. You know, I’m an intellectual, and I am working in the Academy of Art. You know, a person’s book has been published 15 times with the permission of the same government, and then the same government stops it, bans it.  You have your prestige, and every government should be committed to what it said, to its signature and so on. Just, you know, look at the publishers. How many of the publishers during these four years have been banned?”

“I believe that the minor dictatorship just came to power because of evasion of law because it was privileged thing to the people that we can evade the law.”

“And really, I fear that, I am concerned about it, I don’t say that [inaudible] that he wants to become a dictator, but suppose that for eight years a government rejects the law or evades the law, saying that ‘I don’t like it’ and so on, this is selfishness and self-centeredness saying that ‘I don’t like this.’ It is not in the interest of the government.”

“I didn’t say you are a dictator but this leads to dictatorship, definitely it leads to dictatorship. Because you just give priority to your own vote compared to the parliament and to the expediency council.”

“I think that instead of just creating, of forging cases against others, it’s better to just solve the problems, to solve the difficulties of the country, to save the country from the crisis. I very honestly and without any personal, just, involvement, I entered the race because the government is evading the law.”

Ahmadinejad defending his record on freedom of the press:

“Tolerating the opposition. What’s happening in this government? Three hundred twenty thousand titles insulting my government. We never closed down any newspaper, nor threatened anybody, nor pressured anyone. They are still writing things against us, with your support and against us, they are still busy writing. You raised different issues against this government. Let’s compare, let’s try to remember what happened in the past three governments and what’s happening now.”

Ahmadinejad on the failures of previous regimes:

“In the course of the trips you made across the country, you realize that there are problems across the country. Are these problems all created in the past four years? What about the 24 years before that? Does it mean that there was a heaven, and a utopia, and you delivered that to me, and your friends delivered that to me, and I turned it to hell, and nothing positive has been done?”

“You said that they created great wealth. What are Mr. Hashemi’s sons doing in the country? Which one of my ministers, during their time in office, possessed any mansions and created wealth, generated wealth for themselves? I have a list of the land that officials got: 40 hectares, 50, 80 hectares, 400 hectares plots of land. This happened during the transfer of ownership that started before this government. Who possessed all of these? Those who are supporting you now.”

Ahmadinejad’s attacks on Mousavi directly:

“Mr. Mousavi, I sometimes feel sorry. You raised some questions, some issues that shows that you’re misinformed.”

“You just visited four or five provinces, and I have seen the whole of the country, and If I’m going to talk about problems people have, I should spend all the time of this session to talk about those problems, still will be short of time. Have you just realized we have problems? We have no unemployment before, no addiction before, no problems at workshops and factories, no agricultural problems? No issues, industrial problems? Are all of them related to this government term? I wish you had offered a plan.”

On Mousavi’s wife: “I have only one more statement to make. I have a dossier of a lady, you know the lady. Your campaign she sits next to you which is against all the regulations. She studied 2 masters degree, one in Azad university, she got PhD without attending the university entrance exam and now she is an assistant professor without having qualifications, she is now heading a faculty, this is lawlessness, this is what I am opposed to, grants and concessions going to some people and depriving others of all this, I am law abiding, my government abides by the law more than anyone else.”

Mousavi criticizing Ahmadinejad’s economic record:

“Another problem is that, the government wants the control of all the banks and all the organizations so that the representatives of the judiciary and the private sector are not there, so as a result we just face this inflation and the economic situation the industry is facing problem, inflation is 25%  and everybody is just crying.”

 “I will just discuss about the economic issues, how you are just managing the country. The money council has just turned the country into your backyard, it is just like the Khajarera…”

In closing:  “I have one minute? Okay. I would like to thank my nation, the nation. I know that they really, I just invite them to just analyze the issues very deeply in relation of the people and then ask them to follow the [inaudible] through one letter it is not okay, we have to create employment, to consolidate our production, we have to strengthen our industry instead of just importing Basmati rice. I went to [inaudible], it’s really funny, their main product is garlic. They said that they had imported garlic from China we cannot really cultivate it, we have to remove these problems, to solve these problems, we have to have some sort of enchantment to our nationality, Iranian, being Iranian.”

Ahmadinejad defending his economic record and attacking Mousavi’s economic stewardship:

“During Mr. Hashemi’s government, the inflation rate was 49.5%, 49 billion dollars was what we had as foreign debt at this time. Social crises were hitting many of our major cities at that time. A large number of people got killed. Didn’t you feel worried at that time when sanctions were imposed?  20 million dollars, many countries that had a contract with Iran, over 20 million dollars then was going to be boycotted, and the inflation rate was almost to 50%, and you were not concerned at that time.”

“And the last point you make is [that] I did not mention statistical figures when the economy is hurt [but] best economic situation belongs to this time; compared to your time its excellent and we have detailed reports and we have statistical figures all here”