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Iran leader issues veiled criticism of moderates

TEHRAN (Reuters) - Iran’s Supreme leader said on Thursday the Islamic Republic’s “honor” in the world should not be questioned, in an apparent criticism of reformers challenging President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in this month’s election.

Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei waves at mourners before speaking during a ceremony to mark the anniversary of the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, at the Behesht Zahra cemetery south of Tehran June 4, 2009. REUTERS/Caren Firouz

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei spoke a day after a leading moderate rival accused the conservative president of humiliating the nation by adopting “extremist” foreign policies.

Former Prime Minister Mirhossein Mousavi made the allegation in a heated televised debate which underlined clear policy and personality differences between the two candidates widely viewed as front-runners in the June 12 presidential election.

The 90-minute debate, broadcast live on state television, captivated the nation as the candidates traded blows on issues ranging from the economy and relations with the United States to the Holocaust, which Ahmadinejad has repeatedly questioned.

Ahmadinejad’s critics, including some conservatives, say his fiery anti-Western speeches have isolated Iran, which is at odds with the West over its disputed nuclear work.

Khamenei has in the past praised Ahmadinejad’s handling of the nuclear issue and last month called on Iranians to back an anti-Western candidate, without mentioning any names.

“The honor of our nation today is reflected in the world,” Khamenei said in a televised speech to mark the 20th anniversary of the death of his predecessor Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

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“I do not accept the sayings of those who imagine that our nation has become belittled in the world because of its commitment to its principles ... this path will continue until final victory,” he said.

NO ELECTION “CHAOS”

Iran says its nuclear program is only for electricity generation. The West suspects it is to build nuclear weapons.

Mousavi has said he would continue nuclear talks with major powers if he is elected president, in contrast to Ahmadinejad, who has ruled out any such negotiations with the United States, Russia, China, France, Germany and Britain.

Mousavi said in Wednesday’s debate that Iranians’ dignity had been damaged since Ahmadinejad was elected in 2005.

The president hit back, accusing Mousavi and his backers, including reformist former President Mohammad Khatami, of trying to weaken Iran by wanting a policy of “detente” with the West.

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The streets of the capital Tehran were largely deserted as millions of Iranians watched the debate. Rival supporters poured into the streets after it was over, holding photographs of their candidates, shouting and honking car horns.

It is the first time since Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution that such debates have been aired in a presidential election.

Khamenei, whose words can sway millions of loyalists to the Islamic Republic’s ideals, urged calm in the election campaign in order to avoid “enmity” and “chaos.”

“I do not have any problems with debates and criticism but try to do it in the right framework of sharia and religion,” he said, referring to Islamic law.

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