TEHRAN: The six qualified candidates cleared to run for president by the election watchdog Guardians Council had their first live debate on Friday, warming up the race for the May 19 presidential poll.
The field of candidates is almost equally divided between President Hassan Rouhani and his backers, Vice President Es'haq Jahangiri and former industries and mines minister Mostafa Hashemitaba, and their conservative opponents, Tehran Mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, custodian of the holy shrine of Imam Reza, Ebrahim Raeisi, and former culture minister, Mostafa Mirsalim.
The first of three live debates, held on Friday for three hours, witnessed fierce confrontations between outgoing President Hassan Rouhani and his vice-president Jahangiri, from one side and conservative candidate Tehran mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf from another side.
Ghalibaf berated Rouhani for failing to make good on a promise "to create four million jobs", saying unemployment was Iran's "biggest problem." Rouhani riposted by saying: "I never promised to create four million jobs. That's a lie."
Unemployment, which stands at 12.4 percent, the lack of social housing and government aid to the underprivileged were the issues that dominated Friday's debate.
For his part, Jahangiri hinted to Ghalibaf's role in the attacks on the Saudi embassy in Tehran and consulate in Mashhad that took place in 2016, and said the attack had caused a great damage to the Iranian tourism industry by creating tense relations with Saudi Arabia. Jahangiri said due to the attacks, Iran lost around 700 thousand tourists who visit Mashhad every year.
Defending his four-year presidential record, Rouhani said employment generation requires a favorable business environment, which his administration has worked hard to create.
The president said his government has also exerted considerable efforts to attract foreign investment, as part of measures to revive a flagging economy hit by years of international sanctions.
Live televised debates, introduced in the runup to the 2009 presidential poll, are a must-see for many Iranians curious to know more about their would-be presidents.
The candidates' performance in these debates is a seen as a reliable indicator of their final ranking.
The next two electoral debates will be held on May 5 and May 12 on politics and economy respectively.
The campaign season started on April 21 and will last until 24 hours before the vote.
If no candidate garners more than 50% of the votes, a runoff will be held on May 26 between the two top vote-getters.
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