TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iran's eight presidential candidates quarreled about talks with world powers over the country's disputed nuclear program Friday as they held their final televised debate ahead of next week's election.
Iran's president does not have control of central issues like nuclear development policy but does generally enjoy a close relationship with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that can prove influential. The issue also has come to the fore as the Islamic Republic's ailing economy has emerged as a major focus of campaigning ahead of the June 14 vote.
Iran is suffering from 30 percent inflation and 14 percent unemployment. Western oil and banking sanctions over its refusal to stop uranium enrichment have deeply cut its revenues. The U.S. and its allies fear that Iran may be aiming to develop a nuclear weapon, a charge Tehran denies.
Iran was referred to the U.N. Security Council after President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to power in 2005 with a bombastic style and hard-line platform.
Iran's former nuclear negotiator, the centrist Hasan Rowhani, suggested a more conciliatory stance at the negotiating table.
"We should look broadly. Once people live under economic hardships, their dignity is undermined. It's very good to see (nuclear) centrifuges rotating but only when people could make ends meet, when factories and industry could run smoothly," he said. "All our problems (under Ahmadinejad) are because all efforts were not made to prevent the (nuclear) dossier from being sent to the Security Council."
Most of the sanctions, leveled for Iran's refusal to stop uranium enrichment, have been imposed during the tenure of Iran's main nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili, who also is running for president.
Jalili, a Khamenei loyalist and the most hard-line of the eight candidates, accused Rowhani of appeasing the West, attacking his record as chief negotiator and saying he temporarily shut down the country's program a decade ago out of fear.
"Rowhani says in his book . that Iran received little, (Europeans) didn't keep their promise and instead came forward with more demands," he said.
Iran temporarily suspended uranium enrichment in 2003 as a confidence building measure to dispel suspicions that it was seeking a nuclear weapon. However, it resumed nuclear activities after three European countries — Britain, France and Germany — demanded the permanent shutdown of the enrichment program.
Independent conservative candidate Mohsen Rezaei, a former commander of the country's Revolutionary Guards, said Rowhani's and Jalili's positions were both extreme in their own right.
He accused the U.S. and its allies of avoiding meaningful talks in the hopes that sanctions will force Tehran into making concessions. As a solution, he proposed shoring up the country's flagging economy to boost Iran's negotiating position.
"The nuclear talks should come to a conclusion more quickly," he said. "The West is buying time so that the sanctions hit the economy more seriously... We should prove we have a competent economy that renders sanctions ineffective. The economy is the way to get out of the deadlocked talks. When it's proved that sanctions are ineffective, then the Americans will come to the negotiating table."
Another Khamenei loyalist, Ali Akbar Velayati, said Iran should seek to ease the sanctions while preserving its nuclear program.
"We should insist on our right to uranium enrichment and lead the country wisely so that we avoid estrangement from other countries at the same time," he said.