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Ahmadinejad, rival spar in Iran debate

Iran’s president waved an apparent intelligence file on his challenger’s wife in the air Wednesday night, accusing her of violating government rules in an explosive televised debate that laid bare the rifts within the country’s establishment.

Mir-Hossein Mousavi, the aging former prime minister who is the leading contender against President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the presidential election next week, kept his cool and struck back forcefully, defending his wife as a dedicated scholar and artist and accusing the incumbent of using the instruments of state to dig up dirt on his opponents.

“This is typical of your government,” he told Ahmadinejad. “Instead of finding solutions, you send your deputies to make files on the people.”

The long-anticipated 90-minute encounter, watched by more than 40 million people, was the second in a series of seven live one-on-one debates among the four presidential contenders.

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The two candidates attacked each other unremittingly, touching on sensitive issues such as human rights, Iran’s involvement in the Arab-Israeli conflict and its relations with the United States in a freewheeling format rare on state television.

Mousavi, struggling with his words during the beginning of the debate, hammered hard at Ahmadinejad’s foreign policy, accusing him of needlessly alienating other countries. He mocked what he described as Ahmadinejad’s erratic behavior during several crises and trips abroad and repeatedly criticized Ahmadinejad for questioning the existence of the Holocaust, which he said hurt Iran’s national interests and unified the world behind Israel, Tehran’s rival.

“Relations between Europe and Israel had become a bit bad due to its crimes in Gaza,” he said.

“Due to those remarks, [Europe] stood behind Israel.”

Ahmadinejad, smiling and often sarcastic, fought back forcefully. In crisp diction and barbed words, he noted that during Mousavi’s 1981-89 tenure as prime minister, he too had called for Israel’s destruction, shuttered newspapers and jailed students.

The president grabbed credit for expanding Iran’s nuclear program and standing up to the West. “For 27 years the Americans were pursuing a policy of regime change against us,” he said.

“Now they are saying they are not. Whose foreign policy brought that about?”

Ahmadinejad painted Mousavi as part of a cabal that includes Hashemi Rafsanjani, an influential ayatollah and former president, and is dedicated to defeating him to secure vested interests. He named names, accusing several key political figures and their families of corruption and hinting at evidence showing Mousavi’s alleged wrongdoings.

Mousavi was calm and quiet throughout much of the debate, but his body language showed contempt for the president. He rarely looked him in the eye except while delivering a searing, 12-minute final segment that sounded like a prosecutor’s closing argument.

He took Ahmadinejad to task for harassing students, shuttering newspapers and banning books and accused him of cronyism for appointing an interior minister who had a fake university degree, the gambit that probably prompted Ahmadinejad to raise the issue of Mousavi’s wife.

Mousavi likened Ahmadinejad’s populist giveaways to the behavior of 19th century monarchs who used the public treasury to curry favor with the masses by tossing them a few coins.

“We should be trying to increase jobs and production,” he said.

He argued several times that Ahmadinejad had put the country in danger and did not adhere to the laws, leafing through a thick packet of paper and citing example after example.

“I don’t think you’re a dictator,” he said, “but your attitude will lead to dictatorship.”

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daragahi@latimes.com


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