The role of the state in cultural and social life is a hot-button issue in Iran and is seen as an indicator of a candidate’s wider worldview, thanks to the Iranian state’s reformation 30 years ago as an “Islamic Republic” based on religious and cultural precepts enshrined in Shi’a Islam.
Modern Iran is governed by a strict and specific interpretation of these religious tenets. A unified belief system remains the bedrock of state policies and regulations.
Seyed Mohammad Khatami, the former Iranian president who overwhelmingly won two landslide elections in 1997 and 2001, was successful because of his agenda of loosening cultural and political restrictions that many believed restricted individual liberty.
In yesterday’s debate, six of the eight candidates—Hassan Rouhani, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, Mohsen Rezaei, Mohammad Qarazi, and Mohammad Reza Aref—criticized Iran’s current cultural policies and promised to change course.
Rouhani, Aref, Qarazi and Rezaei indicated that they intended promote moderate cultural policies with less government interference if elected, while Qalibaf attempted to avoid being pinned down on the issue, but said that his government would respect citizen’s private lives.
Velayati, Haddad-Adel and Jalili promoted Iran’s current cultural policies, upholding the direct involvement of government in cultural and social life, but proposed different means of doing so.
Hassan Rouhani, the only cleric in the race, said that he disapproved of widespread censorship, hypocrisy and the manipulation of sacred religious beliefs for political ends.
He lambasted the current administration, which he said had tried to find religious justifications for its incompetence and mismanagement. He also said that the Iranian constitution guarantees civil rights, regardless of ethnicity or religion.
In contrast, Saeed Jalili, widely seen as a hard-line conservative, said: “If our goal is to create an appropriate model of Iran’s Islamic civilization, we must invest in it accordingly.”
He said that the three essential elements underlying Iran’s social and political system were motherhood, education and mosques, adding that all of them suffer from under-investment. Jalili emphasized that the role of government is to invest in such fields to ensure cultural purity.
Jalili contrasted the role of women in Iranian society with that in the West, saying that Iranian women should not work, and that their main focus should be on home and family.
Independent candidate Mohsen Rezaei, a former commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), used the debate to discuss his plan to implement “social Islam” in place of “political Islam.”
Rezaei criticized attempts to politicize religion and promised to find a new path that would promote religious values in the social sphere, relying less on state intervention.
Rezaei also vowed to root out all drug trafficking networks inside and outside of Iran. He said: “I will set a deadline to neighboring countries and the US to end drug trafficking through Iran, and if they do not act, God willing, I will act to eliminate such network.”
Mohammad Qarazi, a former telecommunication minister, questioned whether Iran has been successful in preserving its own culture in the face of Western influence, but criticized current official attempts to promote Iranian culture.
He said: “Culture is the national knowledge of a nation, not a set of ideas to be injected into people’s minds.”
The debate took place in a friendlier environment than the previous session, in which some candidates criticized the format. The next and final debate will focus on political issues, and is scheduled to air on June 7.