Nasser Karimi

TEHRAN, IRAN: The eight candidates in Iran’s presidential election tackled the country’s economic problems in their first televised debate Friday, with one hard-liner calling for “reconciliation with the world” to solve high unemployment and inflation, which has been fueled by international sanctions over the country’s disputed nuclear program.

Economic woes are a key issue in the June 14 election, and the economy is a sector where the president can have major influence.

The clerics vetted potential candidates in the presidential race, eliminating wild cards and leaving a tightly controlled range of hopefuls in the race. In Friday’s four-hour debate, several of the candidates were sharply critical of outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s policies — though they offered few details on alternatives.

Iran’s economy has been hit hard, in part because of sanctions imposed by the West over its nuclear program. The United States and its allies accuse Iran of seeking a nuclear weapon, a charge Tehran denies. Inflation in Iran has spiraled to more than 30 percent, while unemployment has risen to 14 percent.

Still, sanctions were hardly mentioned in the debate. Hard-liner Ali Akbar Velayati, a top adviser to the supreme leader, called for “reconciliation with the world,” saying Iran cannot meet its capacity without improving ties with the world and other countries. He did not elaborate further.

He also called for reconciliation inside Iran among all groups that believe in the Islamic Republic system and the supreme leader.

Mohsen Rezaei, a former Revolutionary Guard commander, said Iran must find a “logical solution for the sanctions” to tackle inflation. He also called the current situation “tragic,” noting limits on cargo shipping because of banking, insurance and oil embargoes.

Instead, candidates tackled Ahmadinejad’s policies, particularly his steps to cut subsidies that suck up a large part of Iran’s budget and replace them with cash for the poor. Several were sharply critical, though they promised to continue the cash payments.

Saeed Jalili , the country’s top nuclear negotiator and a leading hard-line candidate, largely backed the policies, though he called for better implementation.

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.

The moderator pushed ahead, but gave up after several other candidates objected as well.

Two more debates will be held over the next week.