Tonight, however, featured what analysts believe to be the top two candidates, incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and former prime minister Mir Hussein Mousavi. Ahmadinejad took the chance to highlight how he is different from his predecessors:
"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."
Khatami serves as a target because of the nationalist foreign policy base Ahmadinejad is targetting, while Rafsanjani, whom Ahmadinejad defeated in the 2005 election, epitomizes for many the corruption of Iran's elite. By linking Mousavi to a revolutionary old guard now seen as largely corrupt, Ahmadinejad hopes to dampen his populist credentials.
However, even though Ahmadinejad had promised to include criticism of the government Mousavi led as prime minister, so far I haven't seen that he actually did so, limiting himself to accusations that Mousavi's wife may have entered graduate school without taking the entrance exam. Why? The most likely reason is that Mousavi's premiership, from 1981-1989, coincided with the presidency of current Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamene'i. Because of this, Ahmadinejad apparently thinks it best to work by linkage to his two immediate predecessors.
Mousavi, however, feels free to deliver his punches:
"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...
"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.'
Mousavi also said:
"For the past four years you kept saying that the United States is collapsing. You have said Israel is collapsing. France is collapsing. Your foreign policies have been based on such illusional perceptions."
Even with key parts of the government supporting him, Ahmadinejad has a tough road to re-election. He has to hope that the reformists stay cynical, or since that doesn't seem to be working out, divided, and that his populist message from 2005 will resonate against someone other than the widely scorned Rafsanjani. All of that said, however, Iranian politics are notoriously difficult to predict.
(Crossposted to American Footprints)