Iran's presidential candidates discuss economic sanctions and nuclear deal ahead of Friday runoff

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iranian presidential candidates on Tuesday discussed the impact of economic sanctions imposed on their country by the United States and other Western nations and presented their proposals for reviving a nuclear deal with world powers.

It was the second — and last — live debate on state television pitting little-known reformist Masoud Pezeshkian and Saeed Jalili, a hard-line former nuclear negotiator, ahead of Friday’s runoff election in which voters will choose a successor for the late President Ebrahim Raisi, who died last month in a helicopter crash.

Pezeshkian, a cardiac surgeon, said that sanctions imposed by the West have badly hurt Iran's economy. He cited a 40% inflation over the past four years and the increasing poverty rates. “We live in a society in which many are begging on the streets," he said, adding that his administration would “immediately” work to try to get sanctions lifted and vowed to “repair” the economy.

As he did the day before, Pezeshkian said he would find a solution to revive a nuclear deal with world powers by discussing the plan with the country’s parliament and finding possible alternatives. “No government in history has been able to flourish inside a cage,” he said, referring to the impact of sanctions on Iran's spiraling economy.

Former President Hassan Rouhani, a relative moderate, in 2015 struck a nuclear deal with world powers that capped Iran’s uranium enrichment in return to lifting sanctions but later, in 2018, President Trump pulled the U.S. out from the landmark deal abruptly restoring harsh sanctions on Iran.

Pezeshkian's hard-line competitor Jalili, who strongly opposed the 2015 deal, said during Tuesday's debate that the U.S. must honor its commitments on par “with the commitments we fulfilled.” He condemned his opponent for not having any plans for getting sanctions lifted and said he would resume talks about a nuclear deal.

Jalili, who is known as the “Living Martyr” after losing a leg in the 1980s Iran-Iraq war and is famous among Western diplomats for his haranguing lectures and hard-line stances, also pledged to support the country's stock exchange market by providing insurance to stocks as well as financial support to local industries.

Both candidates pledged to revive the economy, provide energy subsidies to poor people and facilitate importing cars while supporting the domestic auto industry. They did not elaborate on the source of funds they will need to fulfill their promises.

Iran will hold a runoff presidential election Friday, only its second since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, after no one won last week's election outright.

Iranian law requires that a winner gets more than 50% of all votes cast. Only 39.9% of the voting public cast a ballot, and more than 1 million of those 24.5 ballots were later rejected — typically a sign of people feeling obligated to head to the polls but wanting to reject all the candidates.