By Thomas Erdbrink
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, June 4, 2009
TEHRAN, June 3 -- President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his main rival in the June 12 election, former prime minister Mir Hossein Mousavi, held a remarkably frank debate Wednesday night that exposed deep differences among Iran's leaders and presented voters with two completely opposing views.
During the 90-minute debate, which was televised live, the candidates openly delved into topics in a way never seen in the Islamic republic, touching on foreign policy and corruption. In addition, Ahmadinejad raised questions about the academic credentials of Mousavi's wife, a former professor.
The candidates represent two factions in Iran's system of Shiite clerical government. In the debate, Ahmadinejad, in a beige suit and surrounded by stacks of papers, portrayed his opponent as a pawn of Iran's political elite, which he said was corrupt and weak in the face of Western pressure.
Mousavi, a painter and architect, said Ahmadinejad's controversial international and domestic policies were a danger to Iran's future. He accused the president of driving the country toward a "dictatorship" and acting as if he owned the truth. "You think you are higher than all," he told Ahmadinejad.
A large part of the debate centered on foreign policy. Mousavi said Ahmadinejad's denial of the Holocaust had cost Iran much international standing. "Tell me, who are our friends in the region?" he asked the president. Mousavi said the country had became internationally isolated.
Ahmadinejad pointed out that the previous government, which temporarily suspended uranium enrichment from 2003 to 2005, received nothing in return for the gesture to the West.
"There was so much begging for having three centrifuges. Today more than 7,000 centrifuges are turning," Ahmadinejad said of Iran's nuclear program. "Which foreign policy was successful? Which one created degradation? Which one kept our independence more, which one gave away more concessions but got no results?" he asked.
Ahmadinejad repeatedly blamed Mousavi for the earlier failures of politicians who now support Mousavi's campaign.
The president broke a taboo in Iranian politics by openly labeling as corrupt former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and his family. Many in Iran say Rafsanjani's family has acquired enormous wealth since the 1979 Islamic revolution, but the accusation -- which Rafsanjani denies -- has not been mentioned on state television or publicly by Iranian politicians.
"Where did the sons of Mr. Hashemi get their money from?" Ahmadinejad asked. "How did the son of Mr. Nateq Nouri became a billionaire?" he said of an influential former parliament speaker who once supported him. "I have lists of former high managers who were given lands, hectares of land."
In the 2005 presidential race, Ahmadinejad, then the mayor of Tehran, surprisingly made it into a second round, facing Rafsanjani, a former two-term president.
During the campaign, Ahmadinejad has promised to bring the "economically corrupt" to justice but has never named those he accused. After the televised debate, some Iranian news agencies refrained from printing the parts in which Ahmadinejad directly accused Rafsanjani and a string of other influential politicians.
Ahmadinejad also accused Rafsanjani and his family of trying to become a ruling dynasty.
"Mr. Hashemi is the puppet master behind all of this," Ahmadinejad said of criticism of his government. "He wants you to prolong his aristocracy," he told Mousavi.
Ahmadinejad held up a paper showing text and a portrait of Mousavi's wife, Zahra Rahnavard, a prominent academic. "I have a file here of a woman, you know her as she sits beside you in your election meetings. She became a dean without the correct credentials," Ahmadinejad said.
Rahnavard has quickly shot to fame in Iran, holding hands with her husband during campaign rallies, events where the wives of candidates did not appear in the past.
Mousavi, who remained reserved during the debate, said Ahmadinejad's methods of governance would result in dictatorship. Responding to the attacks on his campaign supporters, he said, pointing a finger: "You can't just accuse people and name them. What does this have to do with me?"
He added, "You couldn't find anything against me -- that's why you try to connect me with the two previous governments."
Ahmadinejad tried to interrupt -- a move not allowed in the debate -- but Mousavi said that it was his time to speak.
"For four years we are always hearing you predicting that the United States and Israel will dissolve. We based our foreign policies on these thoughts, so it's obvious that we went in the wrong direction," he said. "Your management is taking us toward a dead end. Our country is hurting badly."
Special correspondent Kay Armin Serjoie contributed to this report.