President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his main contender in the June 12 elections, former Prime Minister Mir-Hussein Mousavi, held a remarkably frank debate televised live Wednesday night which exposed deep differences among Iran's leaders and presented Iranian voters with two completely opposing views.
During the 90-minute debate, the candidates openly delved into topics in a way never seen in the Islamic Republic, touching on foreign policy, corruption, and raising questions about the academic credentials of Mousavi's wife, a former professor.
Representing two different factions in Iran's system of Shiite clerical government, 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 an architect, said that Ahmadinejad's controversial international and domestic policies were a danger to Iran's future. He accused the president of driving the country towards 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 that 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 had temporarily suspended uranium enrichment from 2003 till 2005, got 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. "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 previous failures of those politicians who now support Mousavi's campaign.
The president broke a taboo in Iranian politics by openly labeling as corrupt the former president, ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, and his family. Many in Iran say that Hashemi-Rafsanjani's family has acquired enormous wealth since the 1979 revolution, but the accusation - which Hashemi-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 head of parliament that once supported him. "I have lists of former high managers who were given lands, hectares of land."
In 2005 Ahmadinejad surprisingly made it into a second round, facing Hashemi-Rafsanjani, who had already served two terms as president. During the campaign Ahmadinejad promised to bring the "economically corrupt" to justice, but never named those he accused. After the debate some Iranian news agencies refrained from printing the parts of the televised debate where Ahmadinejad directly accused Hashemi-Rafsanjani and a string of other influential politicians.
Ahmadinejad also accused Hashemi-Rafsanjani and his family 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, who is a prominent academic. "I have a file here of a woman, you know her as she sits besides 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, where in the past the wives of candidates did not appear in public.
Mousavi, who remained reserved during the debate, said that 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, not allowed during 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 towards a dead end. Our country is hurting badly."