ANKARA • President Hassan Rouhani has cast his hardline clerical opponents as power-hungry pawns of Iran's security forces, going far beyond the traditional boundaries of Iranian political discourse in a blistering final TV debate a week before an election.
Mr Rouhani, first elected in a landslide win four years ago on a promise to reduce Iran's international isolation, is trying to hold on to office by firing up reformist voters disillusioned by a stalled economy and the slow pace of social reform.
Although the President has long cast himself as an insider and pragmatist rather than a gung-ho reformer, he seems to have shed that moderate image in recent days, seeking to energise voters who want less confrontation abroad and more freedom at home.
In three hours of blazing exchanges with his rivals last Friday, he took on targets once seen as all but untouchable, including the judicial establishment and the Revolutionary Guards, the elite military force that controls much of Iran's economy.
"Mr Raisi, you can slander me as much you wish. As a judge of the clerical court, you can even issue an arrest order. But please don't abuse religion for power," Mr Rouhani said at one point to his main hardline rival, Mr Ebrahim Raisi, a judicial official and protege of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
"Some security and revolutionary groups are busing people to your campaign rallies... Who finances them?" said Mr Rouhani at another point.
He cast his other main rival, Teheran mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, a former Guards commander and police chief, as a thug who had boasted of personally taking on young demonstrators.
"You wanted to beat up students," Mr Rouhani said.
The two main rivals mostly hammered Mr Rouhani's record on the economy, arguing that jobs have been lost and prices have risen despite the 2015 agreement that he reached with global powers to lift sanctions in return for curbing Iran's nuclear programme.
Voters who had grown cool say they are now taking the election seriously.
"I wanted to boycott this election because I am so disappointed with Rouhani's failure to bring more freedom to Iran," said teacher Reza Mirsadegh in the central city of Yazd.
"But I have changed my mind. I will vote for Rouhani to prevent Raisi's win."
If no candidate wins 50 per cent of the vote on Friday, a second-round run-off would be held a week later.