Iran's voters had been anticipating a heated discussion in their country's first-ever presidential candidates' debate, but even then, Wednesday night's showdown between incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and moderate challenger Mir-Hossein Moussavi was a rough-and-tumble affair that exceeded expectations. And the new season of televised politics could get even nastier.
Ahmadinejad came out swinging in his 10-minute opening statement, charging that his government had been the target of unprecedented slander, not only from Moussavi, but also from previous Presidents such as Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami. These men, said Ahmadinejad, had led Iran away from the path of the 1979 Islamic revolution, and were part of a current "that saw itself as the owner of the nation, of the revolution, rulers of the people." (See pictures of the long shadow of Ayatullah Khomeini.)
Moussavi, much more relaxed if not subdued, said he had decided to run because he felt Iran was in great danger. The country could be managed in two different ways, he argued: by adventurism, instability, grandstanding, heroic sloganeering, illusions, superficiality and a disregard for law; or by the way of rationality and expertise. He accused Ahmadinejad of creating a culture of dictatorship, in which Iranians were becoming desensitized to violations of the law by those in power.
That attack prompted Ahmadinejad to break a taboo by accusing high-ranking officials by name of using their power to enrich themselves. "What do the sons of Mr. Hashemi do in this country? Which one of my ministers has become a billionaire, or taken rents or usurped properties?"
Moussavi also accused Ahmadinejad of making the country less secure by constantly raising the issue of the Holocaust. "AIPAC [the America Israel Public Affairs Committee], the biggest Zionist institution in the U.S., sees this policy as a blessing for itself," he argued. "We have to have a more pragmatic policy. For four years now, we hear that America is about to collapse ... If that is so, why has it been requested of Obama's Administration through the Swiss to talk to your government before the elections?"
But Ahmadinejad insisted he was the first President since the revolution to have secured Iran against U.S. intervention. "For 27 years during your reign [Moussavi was Prime Minister from 1981 to 1989] and those of Mr. Hashemi and Mr. Khatami, the U.S. was seeking to topple the Islamic Republic. Today the U.S. has declared officially that it is not seeking to overthrow us," the President said. (See the photo-essay "Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: Iranian Paradox.")
The debate energized supporters of both candidates, hundreds of thousands of whom flooded the streets of Tehran after it was over, each side proclaiming its man the victor. Moussavi supporters chanted, "Doctor [Ahmadinejad], remember Moussavi is above you," to which Ahmadinejad supporters responded, "The debate was held, and Moussavi was destroyed."
One chador-clad Moussavi supporter said, "[Ahmadinejad] played dirty tricks. He put Moussavi into Hashemi's camp. For the first time on national television, someone dared to stain Hashemi's name. That will win him more supporters."
Another young Moussavi supporter disagreed: "He declared everyone his enemy. He wasn't having a debate with Moussavi, he was slandering the names and honors of people who weren't there to defend themselves. That's not honorable. Iranians won't like that," he said.
Many others were disappointed with Moussavi's performance. "He looked like he was in a total state of shock, like he didn't expect Ahmadinejad to hit so hard," said Ata Hosseinian, 25. "He could barely talk properly, he kept saying chiz" (a Persian equivalent of thing, which is used in the way "you know" is used in colloquial English).
An Ahmadinejad supporter on Modarres Highway said it was right of the President to name those names in his allegations of corruption. "People think of Moussavi as the wartime Prime Minister, but they should be aware of who's behind him," the man said.
"That is precisely what Ahmadinejad wanted to achieve," said one dispirited Moussavi supporter. "He wanted to redirect people's hatred of corrupt politicians to Moussavi's person, although Moussavi himself is known to be clean."
Debate among supporters of rival candidates continued for hours, mostly peacefully, although occasional fistfights and brawls were reported across town.
One point that had antagonized Moussavi's supporters was Ahmadinejad's attack on the candidate's wife. The President said Zahra Rahnavard, who is the first woman in the history of the Islamic Republic to campaign on behalf of her husband, had entered university without sitting the difficult national entry exam. "I'd like to talk about the educational record of a lady you know very well. Should I talk about this lady's record? Should I?" Ahmadinejad had asked threateningly.
That attack alienated at least one of Ahmadinejad's supporters. "It was particularly ugly of the President to point the finger at Moussavi's wife, who is an honorable lady with a résumé of service to the country," said a chemical-engineering student. "I was an Ahmadinejad supporter, but the face he showed last night really turned me off. I'm voting for Moussavi."
By cloaking himself in the mantle of anticorruption campaigner, Ahmadinejad appeared to escape the burden of incumbency. "Although he has all the means of the country at his disposal, Ahmadinejad's aim was to present himself as the underdog last night, and he succeeded to some extent," former Vice President Mohammad Ali Abtahi commented. "He showed that in order to gain a few more votes, he is willing to put in question the legitimacy of the entire Islamic Republic."
By breaking with the conventions of Iran's political class, the President has certainly taken a risk. "Ahmadinejad totally broke the rules of the game," said Moussavi supporter Hosseinian. "He may very well have a powerful current building up against him." There are now rumors that Rafsanjani, Expediency Council chief and the country's second most powerful personality after the Supreme Leader, has asked state television for an opportunity to debate Ahmadinejad live. State television in the Islamic Republic has rarely been this exciting.