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Iran President, Reformist Rival Trade Barbs In TV Debate

President Mahmud Ahmadinejad (left) and reformist rival Mir Hossein Musavi (right) at their televised debate on June 3.
Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad and a leading reformist rival, former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Musavi, exchanged fiery verbal barbs in second of a series of planned debates between presidential candidates ahead of next week's election.

During the face-to-face debate, broadcast live on June 3, Ahmadinejad directed a number of personal attacks at Musavi and his supporters, while Musavi accused the incumbent of isolating Iran and leading the country toward dictatorship.

Ahmadinejad also appeared to target Musavi's wife and partner on the campaign trail, Zahra Rahnavard, casting doubt on her academic credentials. Rahnavard has been a conspicuous presence in a country dominated by a strict interpretation of Islam where candidates' wives rarely step out of their husbands' shadows.

The sharp tone of the debate reflected widespread perceptions -- in a country with little access to reliable polling figures -- that it featured the two presidential front-runners in a four-man race ahead of the June 12 election.

Musavi expressed sorrow for the Iranian public, which he said has fallen victim to Ahmadinejad policies plagued by adventurism, instability, and extremism.

Ahmadinejad accused two Musavi supporters and former Iranian presidents of working together to crush his government.

"My belief is that Mr. Musavi is not my only rival; Mr. Mousavi is not alone," Ahmadinejad said, identifying ex-Presidents Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami by name.

"They have always been together," Ahmadinejad said. "From the first day that this government was established [in 2005], there were attacks to damage us."

Without mentioning Rahnavard by name, Ahmadinejad questioned whether someone could earn two master's degrees simultaneously while also serving as a government employee.

Likewise, Ahmadinejad questioned the doctoral degree obtained by his predecessor, Khatami.

At one point, the 67-year-old Musavi reprimanded the sitting president for smearing individuals' reputations.

Ahmadinejad's pre-debate characterization of the Holocaust as a "big deception" also drew criticism from Musavi, who said the president's hostile remarks about Israel and the Holocaust have backfired.

Musavi said Ahmadinejad has left Iran isolated internationally and without any friends in the region.

"Truly, when it comes to foreign relations, we have altered our country's reputation and have damaged it," Musavi said. "We have shamed our country, and this has hurt us. We have even faced problems in the internal affairs of the country. We have developed extensive conflict with other countries, too."

Musavi also accused the incumbent of leading the country toward dictatorship, and said he entered the presidential race to change the situation.

The debate was the second of six televised debates between presidential candidates. Two other candidates, Mehdi Karrubi and Mohsen Rezai, opened the debates on June 2, focusing mostly on the economy and living standards.

RFE/RL's Mazyar Mokfi contributed to this report
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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the region’s ongoing struggle with the coronavirus pandemic and its economic impact. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.