Image: Mir Hossein Mousavi, right, with his wife, Zahra Rahnavard
Hasan Sarbakhshian  /  AP
The leading reformist candidate in upcoming Iranian presidential elections, Mir Hossein Mousavi, right, waves to supporters, Monday with his wife Zahra Rahnavard, during a campaign rally in Tabriz, Iran.
updated 5/26/2009 8:24:44 PM ET 2009-05-27T00:24:44

Iran's leading reformist presidential candidate attacked hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's handling of the economy, accusing him of mismanagement and driving a once-rich Iran into poverty.

Mir Hossein Mousavi and the two other candidates seeking to unseat the president in the June 12 election have hit Ahmadinejad hard on the economy, one of his most vulnerable points with voters hurting from rising unemployment and 25 percent inflation.

"Iran is a rich country. Poverty is not our destiny. Its government's mismanagement that has taken us here," Mousavi told tens of thousands of cheering supporters Monday in his hometown of Tabriz, in northwestern Iran.

While Ahmadinejad's hard-line rhetoric and his defiant pursuit of the country's nuclear program draws international attention, Iran's 70 million people are focused on the economy.

Many Iranians say they are worse off
Iran, under Ahmadinejad, took in record oil revenues when prices soared in the middle of last year, but Iranians complain that they are worse off.

The president's reformist opponents, who seek an easing of social and political restrictions at home and better ties with the West, accuse him of spending too much time slamming the U.S. and Israel and not enough time trying to fix the economy.

His populist policies — including handouts to millions of citizens — have also been blamed for driving up prices, and candidates have accused him of using such payments to buy votes.

"Gross national product has fallen in the past four years. This means people have become poorer. This must change," Mousavi said.

Mousavi, who is remembered for his leadership as Iran's prime minister during the country's 1980-88 war with Iraq, said no justice can be achieved in a country while inflation stands at 25 percent.

"A 25 percent inflation rate means making life hard for the people, it means poverty, a lack of security," he said.

On Saturday, Ahmadinejad said the inflation had nothing to do with his government's policies.

Steering debate away from economy
Ahmadinejad has sought to steer the campaign debate away from the economy and focus instead on the country's nuclear program, which he promotes as a source of pride and strength.

Speaking to reporters Monday in Tehran, he reiterated that Iran would never abandon its advances in uranium enrichment in exchange for offers of easing sanctions or other economic incentives.

The nuclear issue "is closed," he said.

The United States and its allies have been trying to persuade Iran to stop enrichment out of fear it could use the technology to build weapons. Iran says it only wants to produce nuclear energy.

In addition to cash handouts, Ahmadinejad's government recently began distributing free potatoes in small towns, which Mousavi called an insult to the dignity of Iranians that won't solve people's problems.

The crowd responded with chants of "We don't want a potato government."

'Just a basket of potatoes?'
Ahmadinejad's government has earned around $300 billion from crude oil exports in the past three and half years thanks to oil prices that hit $150 a barrel last July before declining.

Ahmadinejad promised when he was elected in 2005 to share Iran's oil revenues with every family, eradicate poverty and lower unemployment.

"Was the people's share of the $270 billion oil revenues just a basket of potatoes?" read a banner carried by Mousavi supporters at Monday's rally.

In another speech, Mousavi said the government spent oil money to import agricultural products and ruined domestic farms as a result. He said huge amounts of Iranian rice were in stores but the government has inundated the market with imported Pakistani and Indian rice.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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