By Hiedeh Farmani
Agence France-Presse [June 6, 2009]
TEHRAN (AFP) — Iranian President Mahmoud Ahamdinejad clashed with reformist rival Mehdi Karroubi in a televised debate Saturday, defending his controversial economic policies and questioning the cleric's integrity.
Karroubi himself accused Ahmadinejad of dishonesty after the incumbent president painted a picture of the economy the cleric said was unreal.
Hardliner Ahmadinejad, 52, seeking a second four-year term, said Iran's economy had actually grown under his administration, a claim contrary to reports by economists who have blamed him for an economic crisis.
In a rare series of debates aired on state television ahead of June 12 poll, he paraded a series of colourful charts claiming Iran's gross domestic product had risen to an annual average of "around 6.25 percent from 5.61 percent in the previous government."
He said inflation had "come down and was less than 15 percent now," adding that pensions had jumped by "nearly 256 percent".
According to central bank figures, Iran is currently reeling under inflation of around 25 percent, which several economists attribute to Ahmadinejad's expansionst policies. The unemployment rate is around 12.5 percent.
"The salaries of people from the lowest strata of society rose under the present government," said Ahmadinejad who was neatly dressed in a blue shirt and dark striped suit.
Current Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad during the debate.
He said even as unemployment rose across the world in countries such as Britain and Canada, "availability of jobs rose in Iran."
Karroubi, 72, is dubbed the "sheikh of reforms" in Iran. He tried to counter Ahmadinejad in the occasionally fiery debate, saying the "government must be honest to the people" and said "lying is the worst sin in Islam."
Dismissing the figures given by Ahmadinejad, the cleric said: "I have been working in the parliament for 16 years ... all the figures that you have given are contradictory to the ones we have seen over the years."
Karroubi also ran for president in 2005, but was defeated in the first round. He claimed that was due to "bizarre irregularities" in the voting process.
Karroubi was scathing about Ahmadinejad's foreign policy.
He pointed out that Latin American president Hugo Chavez, whose ties with Iran have grown under Ahmadinejad, had hugged Saddam Hussein with whom the Islamic republic fought a eight-year war in the 80s.
And in an apparent attempt to whip up nationalist sentiment, he angrily attacked Ahmadinejad for having attended a Gulf Cooperation Council summit and sat under a sign which allegedly said Arab Gulf countries.
"We should hit ourselves hard on the head over this," the cleric said expressing a feeling of great shame usually uttered in Persian.
A composed Ahmadinejad, who often chuckled at Karroubi's remarks, defended himself by saying that the term Arab refers to the countries and not the Gulf itself.
As the debate heated up, each man accused the other of corruption.
Ahmadinejad made a mantra of questioning Karroubi over the 300,000 dollars paid to him when he was in parliament by Shahram Jazayeri, Iran's high profile financial crime convict who is serving a jail term.
The cleric, who initially refused to answer, grudgingly explained that as a "cleric I have had certain authorisations from Imam (Ruhollah Khomeini) that nobody does.
"Jazayeri gave me the money but did not ask for anything in return ever," he said, explaining that he could spend the funds as he saw fit.
And in another dig at his rival, Karroubi added: "I don't have oil money and municipality money to spend."
Karroubi also accused Ahmadinejad of wanting to lend 700 million dollars to an unnamed foreign "president", a proposal he said had been blocked by the country's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Ahmadinejad brushed aside the allegation.
He also questioned how Karroubi's house had grown "bigger over the years", as he sought to portray himself as a modest man living on a teacher's salary.
"If anyone has anything against me or my family, don't hesitate to publish it," he told Karroubi.__________________
View the full debate between Karroubi & Ahmadinejad, with English translation.