The eight candidates in Iran's presidential election have discussed the country's economic problems in the first of three such events organised by state television ahead of the June 14 election.

The format of the debate gave each candidate only a short time to answer questions on an ailing economy struggling to cope with inflation, unemployment and oil revenues slashed by international sanctions.

All eight had been cleared by the hardline Guardians Council electoral oversight body which last week barred two high profile would-be candidates from standing.

Both moderate former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's close ally Esfandiar Rahim Mashaie were excluded.

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The debate's format, especially a multiple choice section of questions at the end on how to run the country, prompted some criticism.

"This way of organising the debate and asking questions is an insult to all the eight candidates and the Iranian people," said reformist Mohammad Reza Aref, refusing to answer them.

Mohsen Rezai, a former commander of the elite Revolutionary Guards, called the debate demeaning.

"You should have let the candidates develop their plans and ideas," he said.

"If since the start of the campaign you do not respect the rank of president, it means that we do not want to have a strong government."

House arrest

Amir, a 31-year-old architect who watched the debate, said: "Nearly all the candidates criticised the incumbent administration's policies without giving a solution to the country's current economic issues.

"People prefer face-to-face debates that allow candidates to challenge each other," he added of heated one-on-one debates four years ago.

Those debates saw heated exchanges between President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his pro-reform opponents, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi.

The discussions helped revitalise the 2009 presidential election and were blamed partly for post-vote street unrest over claims of fraud when Ahmadinejad was re-elected.

Mousavi and Karroubi have been under house arrest for more than two years.

'Oil-free economy'

On Friday, the candidates echoed each other on how to solve economic issues, especially in confronting international sanctions targeting Iran's economy over its controversial nuclear ambitions.

World powers suspect a military motive for Iran's nuclear project, a charge Tehran denies.

"The main policy of my administration will be an oil-free economy. It means the budget dependency on oil will be lowered to zero," said Aref.

Top nuclear negotiator-turned presidential candidate Saeed Jalili said the sanctions "present an opportunity if we lower our dependency on oil".

Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has urged lesser economic dependence on oil sales for the Islamic republic.

Shaghayegh, 30, told the AFP news agency after watching the debates that she did not think any one candidate stood out.

"I did not find the debate useful. I felt that they all had the same general idea," she said. "The debate was not challenging at all."

Source: Agencies