Iran's presidential election candidates have traded heated exchanges over nuclear talks with world powers in a fiery final televised debate.

Centrist Hassan Rouhani, Iran's former nuclear negotiator and Saeed Jalili, the present negotiator, traded harsh accusations during the four-hour debate between the eight June 14 poll candidates on foreign policy and domestic issues on Friday. 

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Jalili accused Rouhani of undermining Iran through past subservience to Western powers, while Rowhani said the Islamic Republic must move away from extremism.

Rouhani defended his role under former president Mohammad Khatami, a reformist, by saying he had headed off a possible US attack and urged Iran to avoid extremism.

"During the presidency of Mr Khatami the country was saved from a crisis," Rouhani said.

"Two regional countries came under attack and Iran was always in the list," he said, alluding to Afghanistan and Iraq which border Iran to the east and west respectively.

"Iran managed to distance itself from that path through wisdom and planning."

West warning

Rouhani negotiated a suspension in Iran's uranium enrichment programme that somewhat eased tensions with Western powers, but which has been derided by conservative rivals during the campaign.

The programme resumed after the hardline populist Ahmadinejad was elected in 2005.

Saeed Jalili, a conservative candidate and Iran's present nuclear negotiator, lambasted Iranian foreign policy during Khatami's 1997-2005 tenure and warned that Western powers could take advantage of Iran becoming soft.

"During the term of Mr Khatami and after all the co-operation on Afghanistan, they called us 'the axis of evil',"  Jalili said of the US. 

"This method is wrong. If we want to pursue this method, we will see those results."

Analysts say Iran's political establishment under clerical Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is intent on seeing a loyal candidate enter office and avert any repeat of the 2009 turmoil, the worst in Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Diplomacy calls

The Iranian state flatly denied doctoring the 2009 vote and said the protests were fomented by Iran's foreign enemies.

Jalili has overseen a hardening in Iran's stance in talks with six world powers seeking to restrain its nuclear programme. He is tipped as a frontrunner thanks to close ties with conservative power brokers and views similar to Khamenei's.

But Rouhani, who is close to Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a pragmatic president in office from 1989 to 1997, has attracted public interest in his candidacy through polished television performances and calls for moderation and diplomacy.

"All of our problems stem from this: that we didn't make an utmost effort to prevent the [nuclear] dossier from going to the Security Council," said Rouhani, the only cleric in the presidential race, of the UN.

"We need to get away from extremism. We should maintain the country's interests and national security so as to provide conditions where we create opportunities."

Iran's president generally manages domestic affairs particularly the economy and can indirectly influence foreign policy decisions. But overall state policy is the remit of Khamenei, who wields decisive powers across government and the military and security services.

In the wake of a heavy-handed security crackdown on all forms of public dissent from Islamist orthodoxy after the 2009 election, many voters are sceptical anything will change through the ballot box.

Source: Agencies