TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iranian President Hassan Rouhani offered a full-throated defense Friday of his opening the country to the world through the nuclear deal as his opponents sought to sully his reputation in the last televised debate before the presidential election.
Rouhani insinuated the top hard-line candidate he faces, Ebrahim Raisi, of being in the pocket of the paramilitary Revolutionary Guard. In response, Raisi and others levied corruption allegations against Rouhani ranging from receiving highly subsidized public properties to blocking a probe into corruption charges against his close relatives.
The exchanges marked a harsher turn after previous debates focused on the landmark nuclear accord that Rouhani's government reached with the United States and other world powers.
"I'm ready to, over the next four years, lift the rest of the sanctions against the Iranian nation, like the nuclear sanctions that I lifted over the past 4 years, with strength." Rouhani said in Friday's debate, focusing on the nuclear deal.
His first vice president, Eshaq Jahangiri, also a candidate, asked people to vote to protect Iran, "We have to protect Iran. We should remove war from the region. Warmongers have reached power in various places in the world."
The moderate Rouhani is believed to be the front-runner in May 19 election but the failure of the nuclear deal to bring economic gains for the public has brought an opening that his main rivals, hard-liner Raisi and Tehran mayor Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, have sought to exploit.
Corruption is a major concern among Iranians and in Friday's debate Qalibaf sought to pin it on Rouhani. Qalibaf said that Rouhani and Jahangiri received "highly subsidized" properties from the government.
Qalibaf, a veteran member of the powerful Revolutionary Guard, also said Rouhani administration had facilitated large loans to "particular individuals" through state-run banks while average citizens still struggle to secure small loans.
He added that Rouhani's administration had given "extraordinary payments" to senior officials.
Raisi also claimed that Rouhani had blocked a legal probe into corruption charges against his relatives — a veiled reference to the president's brother and special adviser, Hossein Fere. He also suggested that ministers in Rouhani's government had been linked to illegal imports.
Rouhani denied the charges and levelled his own accusations of wrongdoing at his rivals. He said that security institutions had diverted public funds to Raisi's campaign and bused people to his campaign gatherings.
Rouhani also said Qalibaf had a record of heavy-handed security enforcement, and criticized his handling of student protests in the late 1990s and early 2000s when he was the country's police chief.
He also urged Qalibaf to "pay attention" to corruption in his hometown of Mashhad, suggesting he was somehow involved.
Iran's presidential election is being seen as largely a referendum on Rouhani's outreach to the rest of the world following the nuclear accord.
With average Iranians yet to see substantial benefits from the deal in their daily lives, however, Rouhani remains somewhat vulnerable in his bid for another four-year term.