TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iran's ailing economy, hit hard by international sanctions over its disputed nuclear program, was supposed to be the center of the first debate Friday between eight hopefuls running for president — but the biggest fight on stage was over the format of the debate itself.
The candidates complained about the short time given to answer questions, and when the moderator began asking yes-or-no and multiple-choice questions, one candidate outright refused, saying it seemed too much like a demeaning school test.
The four-hour debate, the first of three to be aired live on national television, was the public's first look at all eight candidates approved by Iran's ruling clerics to enter the June 14 election to succeed outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The clerics' vetting process that eliminated several prominent wild cards and left a tightly controlled choice for voters between figures largely seen as close to supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The economic woes at the center of the debate are a key issue in the election: Inflation has shot up to around 30 percent and unemployment to 14 percent. And the economy is a sector where the president can have major influence — as opposed to other major issues like the nuclear program, which is firmly Khamenei's purview.
But the debate's liveliest moments were over the format itself.
When the moderator began asking a series of yes-or-no and multiple-choice questions, pro-reform candidate Mohammad Reza Aref objected that it was beneath the candidates dignity.
"I'm not answering these questions," he said.
The moderator pushed ahead with a few questions, but gave up after several other candidates objected as well. "The question is bad," several scoffed at one point.
"I'm totally against this line. I answered test questions 40 or 50 years ago," the 61-year-old Aref scoffed.
"You should have asked the candidates before and consulted with them over the manner of the debate," former nuclear negotiator Hasan Rohani chided the moderator. The moderator ended at question number eight, though he still had 16 more to go.
In the next section, the candidates were shown a series of photos — including of a cargo ship, cars backed up in traffic, and clock showing the time of 7:15 — and asked to give their impressions.
"We have a poem in the books of old that said, 'What does the tick tock of the clock say? Listen, it is a reminder of these wise and innocent words, to know the value of time,'" prominent conservative Gholam Ali Haddad Adel mused over the clock photo.
"I hope the Iranian people will know the value of the Islamic government of Iran," he added.
International sanctions imposed by the West over its nuclear program have been a significant factor in Iran's economic woes. The United States and its allies accuse Iran of seeking a nuclear weapon, a charge Tehran denies.
Still, with the president holding little say over the nuclear portfolio, the candidates mentioned it only vaguely in terms of reducing their effects.
Hard-liner Ali Akbar Velayati, a top adviser to the supreme leader, called for "reconciliation with the world," saying Iran cannot meet its capacity without improving ties with the world and other countries. He did not elaborate further.
Mohsen Rezaei, a former Revolutionary Guard commander, said Iran must find a "logical solution for the sanctions" to tackle inflation. Reacting to the photo of the cargo ship, he called the current situation "tragic," noting limits on cargo shipping because of banking, insurance and oil embargoes.
Instead, candidates tackled Ahmadinejad's policies, particularly his steps to cut subsidies that suck up a large part of Iran's budget and replace them with cash for the poor. Several were sharply critical, though they promised to continue the cash payments.
Aref — who was a vice president under Ahmadinejad's predecessor, reformist Mohammed Khatami — gave the strongest note of criticism of the ruling establishment, saying "the problem of the economy is the conservatives' domination over it."
"Interference of some military people and military-affiliated companies in the economy has limited space for participation," he said, in an apparent indirect reference to the powerful Revolutionary Guard's extensive business interests.
Two debates next week are to address social and cultural policy and politics and foreign policy.
Friday's debate had no clear winner, though an online poll on the pro-reform semi-official ISNA news agency gave a strong edge to Aref, with more than 40 percent of some 10,000 people who clicked in on the site saying they agreed with his economic policies. Rohani and Tehran's mayor, Mohammed Bagher Qalibaf, came in a distant second and third in the unscientific survey.
But in the streets of Tehran, many saw Qalibaf as the winner.
In the debate, Qalibaf emphasized his credentials in developing the capital, saying there must be security for investment to encourage private enterprise. He promised to support IT business and said that during eight years as mayor he was able to work with both conservatives and reformists in the Tehran municipal council.
"His smiling face and his explanations about his success story in the Tehran municipality were great," said Azar Showghi, a resident of the capital sitting in a coffee shop with her boyfriend after the debate.
Farshad Soltani, a civil engineer, said Qalibaf "was the only candidate who had some plan for future."
"The rest were stuck in the past," he said, filling his car at a Tehran gas station.