A conservative challenger to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad vowed Friday to "save" Iran's economy if elected, accusing the hard-line leader of pushing the country "on the edge of a precipice."
Mohsen Rezaei, a former head of Iran's elite Revolutionary Guards, is not seen as a leading challenger to the president in the June 12 election, but reformists hope Rezaei will weaken Ahmadinejad by taking votes from within the incumbent's own conservative camp.
Reformists, who seek an easing of social and political restrictions at home and better ties with the West, see a strong opportunity to unseat Ahmadinejad, who has become increasingly unpopular because of Iran's economic woes. Critics also say he has needlessly enflamed world anger at Iran with his statements calling U.N. resolutions "worthless papers" and casting doubt on the Holocaust.
Rezaei made clear Friday his campaign would focus on economic complaints against Ahmadinejad, and even suggested he would work with reformists, saying he would form a coalition government if he wins.
"We've come to save the country's economy. The economy is in need of fundamental changes. We will cure it through formation of a coalition government," he told a press conference after formally registering as a candidate.
"Iran's economy has derailed. It is a centralized economy and managed poorly. There is recession and low productivity ... any efforts to bring development in national economy faces challenges from the government. We want to get the economy out of this situation," he said.
Economic hardships on the rise
Notably, Rezaei was accompanied by his top adviser, Davood Danesh Jafari, an economist who was Ahmadinejad's economy minister but turned into a critic, blaming Ahmadinejad's policies for high inflation and growing economic hardships.
Rezaei, who is wanted by Interpol in the 1994 bombing of a Jewish center in Argentina, has also criticized Ahmadinejad's foreign policy, saying his hard-line policies including his denial of the Holocaust were of "no benefit" to Iran.
Ahmadinejad also formally registered his candidacy later Friday. He didn't speak about his chances or the campaign, saying only that "serving the Iranian nation is the biggest honor."
Ahmadinejad has faced criticism over his economic performance and other policies even among conservatives, who largely supported him in his 2005 election because of his vows to return to the "values" of Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution, which brought to power the country's cleric-led regime.
Rezaei, 57, enjoys support in his home base of the oil rich province of Khuzestan in southwestern Iran. He's believed to have the backing of Iran's powerful former president, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a major figure in the clerical hierarchy.
The leading challenger to Ahmadinejad in the election is reformist Mir Hossein Mousavi, an influential former prime minister. But the reformists must also unify their ranks. Besides Mousavi, there is another pro-reform candidate: former parliament speaker Mahdi Karroubi.
Rezaei has indicated that he will be willing to cooperate with the U.S. on regional security matters if elected. But he could also be shunned by other nations because he is on a list of five Iranian officials sought by Interpol since 2007 for the Buenos Aires bombing that killed 85 people. Iran has rejected any link to the bombing.
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