Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is seen during a military parade to commemorate Army Day, in front of the mausoleum of the late revolutionary founder Ayatollah Khomeini, just outside Tehran, Iran, Thursday, April 17, 2008. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)
TEHRAN, Iran (AP) -- The main pro-reform candidate accused hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of driving Iran toward "dictatorship" and hurting its standing in the world by questioning the Holocaust, during a rare and unprecedentedly raucous election debate Wednesday.
During the 90-minute debate, televised live, Ahmadinejad and opponent Mir Hossein Mousavi traded frank and direct criticisms that are unheard of in Iranian politics, where clashes are usually veiled in elliptical, polite language.
Often, Mousavi appeared confident and repeatedly kept Ahmadinejad off balance with sweeping charges about Iran's internal troubles and its shortcomings on the international stage.
"Your method (of government) definitely leads to dictatorship," Mousavi told Ahmadinejad, who fidgeted in his chair often through the debate and gave scornful smiles as Mousavi spoke.
Mousavi also said Iran has been "downgraded" in the eyes of world by Ahmadinejad's firebrand style and statements. Just hours earlier, Ahmadinejad called the Holocaust a "big deception" and claimed Israel uses it to sway international support.
"Our nation's dignity has been harmed. We've been degraded. There has been increasing tension (under Ahmadinejad). ... Is it in our interests?" Mousavi said.
Mousavi and Ahmadinejad are in an increasingly tight race heading into the June 12 election. The outcome will set the tone of Iran's policies on crucial issues ahead such as its standoff with the West over its nuclear ambitions and the possibility of groundbreaking talks with Washington after a nearly 30-year diplomatic freeze.
Mousavi and the reformers are in favor of better ties with the West and Washington and greater freedoms at home, while Ahmadinejad has taken a tougher stance abroad and domestically.
In Paris, French President Nicolas Sarkozy told Iran's foreign minister, Manoucher Mottaki, that Iran faces greater isolation if it refuses to negotiate over its nuclear program. Sarkozy also denounced Ahmadinejad's questioning of the Holocaust as "shocking."
Ahmadinejad's bid for re-election has been burdened by Iran's stumbling economy and accusations from rivals that his confrontational policies have left Iran with few friends in the world.
Iran has not held a presidential debate since 1997, when four candidates spoke in a rather staid, polite affair.
In Wednesday's debate, Ahmadinejad and Mousavi sat face-to-face across a table, while a moderator sitting between them said little. At times Ahmadinejad shouted and interrupted Mousavi, who did not raise his voice.
"I'm not fighting against one candidate," Ahmadinejad complained during the debate. "I'm standing against a combination led by Rafsanjani and with the cooperation of Mousavi and Khatami."
Ahmadinejad also named a long list of former top officials he accused of "corruption," including Rafsanjani and his sons - a rather unbridled move, since Iranian politicians often avoid naming names directly in their attacks on opponents.
Rafsanjani is a powerful figure in Iran's clerical leadership and is seen as an influential political insider. He has not publicly backed any candidate, but he is believed to support anyone against Ahmadinejad. Also in the race are another reformist - former parliament speaker Mahdi Karroubi - and hard-liner Mohsen Rezaei, a former commander of the powerful Revolutionary Guard.
Mousavi, in turn, charged that Ahmadinejad's foreign policy suffered from "adventurism, instability, emotionalism, superstition, and extremism."
He also called Ahmadinejad an "odd" person to talk to.
After the debate, supporters of both candidates took to the streets near the state-TV building where it took place.
"God is great" and "Ahmadinejad is our love" the president's backers shouted, while Mousavi supporters chanted, "Ahmadi-bye-bye."
Leading political analyst Saeed Leilaz said the debate would further polarize Iran.
"Ahmadinejad's style is like a person who is sinking in a quagmire and resorts to anything to survive," he said.
Ahmadinejad can still count on strong backing from the ruling theocracy, which has the final say in all important policy matters and is capable of mobilizing millions of votes. But Mousavi's "green movement" - named for the color adopted as a campaign symbol - appears to be gaining serious ground among young voters as the race moves into the final week.
Shortly before the debate, Ahmadinejad told a gathering of international scholars that Israel uses the "big deception of the Holocaust" to gain allies in the West.
In April at the U.N.'s conference against racism in Geneva, the Iranian president accused the West of using the Holocaust as a "pretext" for aggression against Palestinians, provoking walkouts by delegates.
Ahmadinejad said in 2005 that Israel should be "wiped off the map" and later called the Holocaust a "myth."
Associated Press Writer Laurent Pirot in Paris contributed to this report.