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Associated Press
In this photo released by the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, on Friday, May 31, 2013, presidential candidates from left, Saeed Jalili, Gholam Ali Haddad Adel, Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, Ali Akbar Velayati, Mohammad Gharazi, Mohammad Reza Aref, Hasan Rowhani, Mohsen Rezaei, pose for a group picture, after their TV debate in a state-run TV studio, in Tehran, Iran. A hard-liner calls for "reconciliation with the world" as Iran's ailing economy takes center stage at the first presidential debate by eight candidates to replace Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The hopefuls, vetted by the country?s ruling clerics, argue about how to deal with high inflation and unemployment, stemming in part from international sanctions over the Islamic Republic's disputed nuclear program. (AP Photo/Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, Mehdi Dehghan)

TEHRAN, Iran — Iran's ailing economy, hit hard by international sanctions over its disputed nuclear program, was supposed to be the center of the first debate Friday between eight hopefuls running for president — but the biggest fight on stage was over the format of the debate itself.

The candidates complained about the short time given to answer questions, and when the moderator began asking yes-or-no and multiple-choice questions, one candidate outright refused, saying it seemed too much like a demeaning school test.

The four-hour debate, the first of three to be aired live on national television, was the public's first look at all eight candidates approved by Iran's ruling clerics to enter the June 14 election to succeed outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The clerics' vetting process that eliminated several prominent wild cards and left a tightly controlled choice for voters between figures largely seen as close to supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The economic woes at the center of the debate are a key issue in the election: Inflation has shot up to around 30 percent and unemployment to 14 percent. 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 Khamenei's purview.

But the debate's liveliest moments were over the format itself.

When the moderator began asking a series of yes-or-no and multiple-choice questions, pro-reform candidate Mohammad Reza Aref objected that it was beneath the candidates dignity.