TEHRAN (Reuters) – Iranâ€™s hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has damaged the countryâ€™s relations with the international community, a moderate challenger to the president in the June presidential vote said on Tuesday.
Mehdi Karoubi, former parliamentary speaker and a moderate cleric, said Ahmadinejadâ€™s questioning of the Nazi Holocaust was not in line with the Islamic stateâ€™s interests.
â€œReducing tension with the West surely is my priority,â€ said Karoubi, one of the main moderate contenders, told a news conference, adding: â€œThe presidentâ€™s speeches have harmed Iranâ€™s interests.â€
Reformists seeking political and social change have criticized Ahmadinejad, who came to power on a pledge to revive the values of the 1979 Islamic revolution, for isolating Iran with fiery speeches against the West.
U.S.-Iranian tensions have worsened since the 2005 election of Ahmadinejad, who questioned the Holocaust and called for Israel to be wiped off the map.
â€œHolocaust is of no concern to Iran whether it existed or not … Such remarks provoke other countries to take measures against Iran,â€ said Karoubi.
At a U.N. conference on racism in April, Ahmadinejad denounced Israel as a â€œtotally racist governmentâ€ founded â€œon the pretext of Jewish sufferings.â€
His comments caused European countries not already boycotting the Geneva conference to walk out but drew applause from Islamic delegations. U.S. President Barack Obama condemned his remarks as â€œappalling and objectionable.â€
While stressing his belief in preserving Iranâ€™s national interests, Karoubi said the Islamic state should be ready for talks with its foes, particularly the United States.
â€œIran should adopt policies in line with the countryâ€™s interests,â€ he said.
Obama has offered a new U.S. approach to Iran, which has not had relations with Washington for three decades, saying he would extend a hand of peace if Iran would â€œunclench its fist.â€ Iran demands â€œreal U.S. policy changeâ€ rather than words.
Washington and Tehran are locked in conflict over Iranâ€™s nuclear program. Karoubi questioned the presidentâ€™s handling of the nuclear issue, saying his fiery speeches helped to isolate Iran and expose it to three rounds of U.N. sanctions.
â€œIf I become president, I will change Iranâ€™s approach in its nuclear dispute with the West,â€ he said. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has the final say on major issues, including Iranâ€™s nuclear standoff with the West.
â€œMore diplomacy would have been better. Calling the (U.N.) resolutions a piece of torn paper certainly harms the country,â€ said Karoubi, in a clear reference to Ahmadinejad who called the U.N. resolutions â€œpieces of torn papers.â€
The West accuses Iran of covertly trying to build nuclear weapons. Iran denies this and has had three rounds of U.N. sanctions imposed on it for not halting its atomic work.
Karoubi switched to the reformist camp during the eight-year presidency of moderate former president Mohammad Khatami but he sometimes buckled to pressure from Iranâ€™s hardline religious establishment, which blocked Khatamiâ€™s reforms.
Another candidate is moderate Mirhossein Mousavi, prime minister during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, who said he wanted to improve ties with the West. Ahmadinejad is so far the only leading conservative to let it be known that he will stand.
Analysts say the fate of the race could depend on whether Ahmadinejad retains the support of Khamenei, whose words could influence millions of loyalists.