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IRAN: Raucous Ahmadinejad debate roils presidential race

June 4, 2009 | 10:05 am

Photo 243b

Competition in Iran's presidential election reached a boiling point Wednesday night as incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and leading challenger Mir-Hossein Mousavi squared off in an explosive no-holds-barred debate full of ad hominem attacks. 

So venomous were the attacks that the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, ordered the candidates to tone it down today, and another powerful cleric, Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, demanded time on television to rebut public allegations made by Ahmadinejad against him.

The aftershocks of the debate continued to roil Iran's political establishment today, a holiday in Iran to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, founder of the Islamic Republic.


Speaking at Khomeini's south Tehran shrine, his successor Khamenei was adamant and his message clear: Tone it down guys.

"Respectable candidates should pay attention to what they say during their debates, talks and speeches on TV and the media. They must not conduct negative campaign against other candidates.... I myself do not have any objection to candidates having debates, dialogues and discourse, but this should be done on the basis of correct and religious principle. Candidates themselves should know that they should not let their campaigning cause unrest in the country."

Photo 244

Rafsanjani, repeatedly accused of corruption by Ahmadinejad during the debate the previous night and in pro-Ahmadinejad newspapers such as the one above, issued a statement demanding air time to defend himself on state television:

"During the televised debate ... between Mr Ahmadinejad and Mr. Mir Hossein Mousavi, Mr. Ahmadinejad threw constant slanders and lies against Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani and his children, which created a doubtful atmosphere for the elections. Since no opportunity existed for defense, we plead that you issue an order, before the time runs out, that a suitable opportunity is given on the same network to respond and make the issue transparent about the defamatory remarks."


The cleric will be delivering Friday prayers in Tehran. Look for him to use the opportunity to criticize  Ahmadinejad's clique, whose members have repeatedly attacked him as a capitalist kingpin in their campaign rhetoric.

Meanwhile, ordinary Iranians are busy assessing the results of the debate between the two main contenders. Here's one particularly astute piece of analysis that came in over the transom, which centered on Ahmadinejad's decision to make an issue of his opponent's wife:

"Ahmadinejad started very well and Mousavi was indeed struggling to find the right words at the outset but I think, as the debate continued, Mousavi became more composed and assured in his remarks. I think the biggest mistake was to pour scorn on Mousavi's wife, Zahra Rahnavard. Women will not like the president for this and it only served to enrage Mousavi who delivered a very forceful counterattack, preventing Ahmadinejad from interrupting him, and effectively ending the debate on a winning note." 


-- Borzou Daragahi in Tehran

Photos, from top: A pro-Ahmadinejad campaign poster features a symbol of the atom, a reference to Iran's nuclear program. The front-page of a pro-Ahmadinejad newspaper singles out the family of cleric Hashemi Rafsanjani. Credit: Delphine Minoui / For The Times 

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