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Tehran: Iranians generally disapprove of Western sanctions crippling the economy, but the country’s six presidential candidates offer different solutions – assuming the winner gets a say in foreign policy.
Punitive U.S. sanctions, imposed after Washington pulled out of a landmark 2015 nuclear deal, have led to years of economic hardship, fueling political malaise and widespread popular discontent.
As snap elections on June 28 approach, the debates between the candidates vying for Iran’s second-highest office have included one key question: Should Tehran’s ties with the West be improved?
Under the late president Ebrahim Raisi, who died in a helicopter crash last month, Western governments expanded sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program and support for Middle Eastern militant groups and Russia in its war in Ukraine.
The sanctions have significantly reduced Iran’s oil revenues, severely restricted trade, and contributed to a spike in inflation, high unemployment and a record low for the Iranian rial against the US dollar.
In Tehran’s bustling Grand Bazaar, shopkeeper Hamid Habibi, 54, said years of sanctions had “hit the people hard”.
“Sanctions should be lifted and relations with the United States and European countries should be improved,” he said.
In two economic-focused televised debates ahead of the presidential election, “almost every candidate explained that the sanctions have had devastating effects,” said Fayyaz Zahed, a professor of international relations at the University of Tehran.
“It is vital to resolve this issue to alleviate people’s suffering,” he said.
While the six candidates — five conservatives and one reformer — all vowed to overcome economic difficulties, they expressed differing views on Iran’s relations with the West.
“If we could lift the sanctions, Iranians could live comfortably,” said reformist candidate Massoud Pezeshkian, who is considered one of the three front-runners.
Pezeshkian, who is backed by key Iranian reformist groups, called for “constructive relations” with Washington and European capitals to “free Iran from its isolation.”
During the campaign, he was supported by former foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who helped broker the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers and insists it has had a positive impact on Iran’s economy.
Since the U.S. unilaterally pulled out of the deal in 2018, Iran has gradually scaled back its commitments under conditions of curtailing nuclear activity, which Tehran says was for peaceful purposes.
Diplomatic efforts to revive the accord have long stalled as tensions between Tehran and the International Atomic Energy Agency have flared repeatedly.
Former President Hassan Rouhani, whose government negotiated the deal, said the sanctions “cost the Iranians $100 billion a year, directly or indirectly from the sale of oil and petrochemicals and the discounts they give,” referring to preferential trade with China . to the 2015 agreement.
Ultraconservative presidential candidate Saeed Jalili, a former nuclear negotiator, called on Tehran to continue its longstanding anti-Western policy.
“The international community is not just two or three Western countries,” Jalili said several times in debates and campaign rallies.
He said Iran should strengthen ties with China and Russia and develop stronger ties with Arab countries, especially Saudi Arabia.
Conservative candidate Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, the incumbent parliament speaker, recommended a more pragmatic approach, saying Iran should negotiate with Western countries only if it “gains an economic advantage.”
Ghalibaf called for Tehran to increase its nuclear capabilities, a strategy he said would “force the West to negotiate with Iran.”
According to Zahed, a professor of international relations, Jalili has positioned himself as “the most inflexible candidate at the diplomatic level.”
In any case, the expert added, the next president will have a limited say in the strategic issues of the Islamic Republic, where the 85-year-old Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has supreme power.
On Saturday, Khamenei called on candidates to avoid comments that would “please the enemy” — referring to the West, particularly the United States.
According to Zahed, the president “can only influence foreign policy” if he “earns the trust of Khamenei and Iran’s most influential government institutions.”

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