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.