In a television discussion, Iran’s presidential hopefuls sling jabs.

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Candidates for Iran’s presidential election later this month threw sharp attacks in a discussion on Saturday, accusing one other of treachery or lacking the knowledge needed to oversee an economy battered by three years of US sanctions.

While the five hardline candidates attacked outgoing pragmatist President Hassan Rouhani’s eight-year performance, the leading moderate candidate, former central bank chief Abdolnaser Hemmati, blamed hardliners for heightened tensions with the West, which he said had exacerbated Iran’s economic woes.

In the first of three debates ahead of the June 18 vote, former Revolutionary Guards chief Mohsen Rezaee accused Hemmati of “fully complying” with U.S. sanctions and said he should face treason charges.

“If I become president, I will ban Hemmati and a number of other officials of the Rouhani government from leaving the country, and I will prove in court which treacherous roles they played,” Rezaee, an economics doctorate holder, said in the televised three-hour debate.

After Rezaee’s remarks, Hemmati half-jokingly asked leading hardline candidate and judiciary chief Ebrahim Raisi: “Mr Raisi, can you give me assurances that no legal action will be taken against me after this event?”

With the hardline-led election watchdog, the Guardian Council, barring leading moderate and conservative candidates, the turnout is likely to be record low in a seven-man race between hardline and somewhat less hardline candidates, and two low-profile moderates.

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“I watched the debate and now I am even more certain not to vote. This election is a joke,” said retired teacher Fariba Semsari by phone from the northern city of Rasht.

But a Tehran-based journalist, who asked not to be named, said: “Hemmati has drawn support among some who would have otherwise not voted. Among other things, his move to have himself represented in an interview with state TV by his outspoken wife has impressed some women.”

Hemmati accused hardliners of isolating Iran internationally and ruining its economy, large sectors of which are dominated by hardline-run conglomerates.

“You have closed off our economy and our foreign contacts…I ask you and your friends, companies and institutions to please pull out of our economy, and then Iran’s economy will surely improve,” said Hemmati, an economics professor.

Mohsen Mehralizadeh, a moderate politician, said the economy could not be run by those with only traditional clerical studies, such as Raisi.

“You have only six years of classic education, and while respecting your seminary studies, I must say that one cannot manage the economy and draw up plans for the country with this much education,” said Mehralizadeh, who holds a doctorate in financial management.

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Raisi blasted Rouhani’s government over galloping inflation and the rapid fall in the value of Iran’s currency, and rejected comments by Hemmati and other moderates who blame U.S. sanctions for Iran’s economic troubles and say without proper management the country would have been worse off.

“This is like a goalkeeper who lets in 17 goals… and then says without me it would have been 30 goals!” said Raisi, who holds a doctorate in Islamic law.

Following the discussion, cabinet spokesperson Ali Rabiei requested that the administration be given an opportunity to react to “accusations and slanders” levelled against it by some candidates on state television.

The poll is likely to strengthen the influence of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is friendly to hardliners, at a time when Tehran and six foreign countries are attempting to resurrect their 2015 nuclear agreement. Washington withdrew from the agreement three years ago and reimposed penalties.



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