By NASSER KARIMIAssociated Press
TEHRAN, Iran (AP) - The eight candidates in Iran's presidential election tackled the country's economic problems in their first televised debate Friday, with one hard-liner calling for "reconciliation with the world" to solve high unemployment and inflation, which has been fueled by international sanctions over the country's disputed nuclear program.
Economic woes are a key issue in the June 14 election, 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 purview of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, head of the ruling clerical establishment.
The clerics vetted potential candidates in the presidential race, eliminating wild cards and leaving a tightly controlled range of hopefuls in the race. In Friday's four-hour debate, several of the candidates were sharply critical of outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's policies - though they offered few details on alternatives.
Iran's economy has been hit hard, in part because of sanctions imposed by the West over its nuclear program. The United States and its allies accuse Iran of seeking a nuclear weapon, a charge Tehran denies. Inflation in Iran has spiraled to more than 30 percent, while unemployment has risen to 14 percent.
Still, sanctions were hardly mentioned in the debate. 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.
He also called for reconciliation inside Iran among all groups that believe in the Islamic Republic system and the supreme leader.
Mohsen Rezaei, a former Revolutionary Guard commander, said Iran must find a "logical solution for the sanctions" to tackle inflation. He also called the current situation "tragic," noting limits on cargo shipping because of banking, insurance and oil embargos.
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.
Saeed Jalili , the country's top nuclear negotiator and a leading hard-line candidate, largely backed the policies, though he called for better implementation.
The candidates did agree on their discontent with the style of the debate, carried live on national TV. For one section of the debate, the moderator announced he would ask a series of yes-or-no questions. After a few questions, pro-reform candidate Mohammad Reza Aref objected, calling it undignified and saying the questions were "wrong."
When the other candidates joined his objections, the moderator dropped the questions.
The candidates are to have two further debates over the next week, one on social and cultural policy and another on political issues and foreign policy.
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