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Iranian presidential hopefuls clash over nuke policy in TV debate

Published: Updated:

Iran’s presidential candidates clashed over nuclear policy issues in a televised debate on Friday.

Iran‘s hardline nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili, was criticized by rival candidates over the lack of progress in nuclear talks with world powers.

The vote, to be held on June 14, will be Iran’s first since the 2009 re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

His re-election had led to months of unrest by backers of the losing reformist side, claiming the vote was rigged.

Former foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati cast doubt on Jalili’s ability, saying diplomacy was not just theory.

“What people are seeing, Mr Jalili, is that you have not gone forward even one step, and the pressure of (international) sanctions still exists. The art of diplomacy is to preserve (our) nuclear rights, not to see sanctions increase,” he said, according to Reuters news agency.

But Jalili, a frontrunner in the race, shrugged off Velayati’s views as “completely false”. While Jalili and Velayati are both seen as close to clerical Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Velayati is considered to be more flexible on aspects of foreign policy, Reuters reports.

Iran has been hit by sanctions from the West over its refusal to suspend uranium enrichment and open up to UN nuclear inspectors. Jalili has presided over a hardening in Iran’s position in talks with world powers.

During the debate, Hassan Rohani, a moderate candidate who was the nuclear negotiator under reformist ex-president Mohammed Khatami, also criticized hardline stances in nuclear policy.

“All of our problems stem from this - that we didn’t make an utmost effort to prevent the (nuclear) dossier from going to the (UN) Security Council,” said Rohani, who negotiated a suspension in uranium enrichment with world powers, somewhat easing Western pressure on Tehran. Enrichment activity resumed after the hardline populist Ahmadinejad took office in 2005.

“It is good to have centrifuges running, provided people’s lives and livelihoods are also running,” Rohani said, referring to Iran’s campaign to develop advanced nuclear technology despite its worsening economic problems.

But Jalili attacked the “soft” strategy of previous administrations, namely that of Khatami who was president from 1997 to 2005, saying it undermined the Islamic Republic through subservience to Western powers, Reuters reported.

“At a time when some friends were saying... we should avoid unnecessary confrontations with them (Western powers), what were the results?” said Jalili, according to Reuters.

“During the term of Mr Khatami and after all the cooperation on Afghanistan (then), the (United States) called us ‘the axis of evil’. This method is wrong. If we want to pursue this method, we will see those results.”