During 90 minutes of bruising debate, Iran's top two presidential candidates on Wednesday sought to denigrate each other's past records, and portray their opponent as dangerous for the future of the Islamic Republic.
Former prime minister Mir Hossein Mousavi accused President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of causing instability in Iran with "adventurism, heroics, and extremism." The hard-line president had "undermined the dignity of our nation" with his caustic anti-West, anti-Israel and Holocaust-denying remarks, he added.
The result of the June 12 election – a four-way contest that could go to a second round – will shape Iran's foreign and domestic policy for years to come. Ahmadinejad has touted his steadfast support of Iran's nuclear program and launching a satellite earlier this year, but he has been hobbled by soaring inflation and an economy weakened by sanctions.
Iran's next president will mold the political climate, as the Islamic system – ultimately led by Iran's supreme religious leader Ayatollah Sayed Ali Khamenei – decides how far it will go in meeting President Barack Obama's overtures for dialogue.
A new electricity seems to have taken hold of the campaigns, as many reformists set aside years of disillusion with politics and say they will vote for Mousavi or moderate cleric Mehdi Karroubi. So the stakes are high, and the incumbent so polarizing a figure that he argued it was "three against one." And this first-ever use of Lincoln-Douglas-style debates in Iran has also fostered very personal attacks.
'Who endangered the regime?'
In Wednesday's nationally televised debate – the second of six, but the first one featuring Ahmadinejad – the president belittled the credentials of Mousavi's wife, who is dean of a university. Mousavi charged that hundreds of books could no longer be republished; Ahmadinejad countered that he censored less than his predecessors. Mousavi said Ahmadinejad's "method is leading to dictatorship."
The president complained that his record had been subject to unprecedented "lies and defamation," claimed that his administration had done the work of several, and that Iranians are now "among the most beloved people on the planet" because of his government's ethical stands.
Ahmadinejad said he had rescued Iran from the denigrations caused by the corruption and foolhardy policies of his predecessors. He asked about the wealth of two-term president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and his sons, and the numbers of billionaires created during that time – and noted that his ministers were humble and pious.
He charged that reformist Mohamad Khatami's two terms had been ones of capitulation to the West on the nuclear file, during which Iran had agreed to suspend uranium enrichment activities and permit intrusive inspections.
Mr. Khatami had helped Washington during the war and making peace in Afghanistan in 2001, but was nevertheless branded by Mr. Bush part of the "axis of evil." By contrast, Ahmadinejad claimed, his own uncompromising stance meant that even Bush eventually gave up thoughts of regime change – and that now Mr. Obama was willing to talk.
"So who endangered the regime?" he asked.
Mousavi sat poker-faced through each sarcastic onslaught. Then he derided Ahmadinejad's foreign policy, asking why, for example, the president kept saying the US was weak and "about to fall," yet made four visits to New York and wrote two letters to President George Bush and the American people.
Mousavi said that the incendiary nature of Ahmadinejad's various Holocaust remarks had yielded fierce international reaction, yet "he comes back and this was like a heroic epic. How was this an epic?"
Instead, Mousavi said, Ahmadinejad's ferocity against Israel – most recently at a UN conference in a speech that caused Western delegates to walk out – had been called a "blessing" for Israel by increasing global support for the Jewish state.
Iranians fed up with economy; face-off in streets
Some Iranians watching the debate were shocked at the candid references to past misdeeds, failed or contentious policies, and sheer vindictiveness shown by the candidates.
"They are destroying the entire Islamic Republic!" said one Mousavi supporter, as she watched the verbal firefight on television. "All this [dirty laundry] is coming out. People talk about this, but never leaders."
"It's a battle," said a friend of hers, when Mousavi said again expressed his disgust at how Ahmadinejad acted "above the law."
"Everyone's upset, productivity is down, inflation is up, and [there is] unlawful expenditure from the public purse," Mousavi said, noting that he had been dipping into the treasury for his programs – and dissolved the organization meant to provide checks and balances. "It's in the interest of everyone in the country, including yourself, for you not to do these things."
The face-off in the debate mirrored one earlier in the day on the streets of Tehran. Banners in the capital show Ahmadinejad beside Iran's rocket, which in February launched the Omid satellite into earth's orbit.
On the 30th anniversary of Iran's Islamic Revolution, just days after that launch, Ahmadinejad told a sea of flag-waving Iranians that their ancient nation had become a "superpower" that could not be threatened.
But Mousavi supporters have been out in force on the streets, handing out strips of green ribbon – the campaign color – to motorists and pedestrians, and plastering cards with Mousavi posters.
The two sides came to a head in front of Tehran University.
"We love Ahmadinejad!" shouted one rose-carrying student who gave her name as Fatemah.
"Just Ahmadinejad!" added Yusef, an accounting student. "He is very loved, very loved across the country."
Mousavi fan Sanaz, an English student, was voting "just to stop Ahmadinejad being president again," she said.
"We don't want such an impolite, unpleasant president," added Morobati, another student. "Our president has put us down in the eyes of the world. People want democracy instead of dictatorship."