TEHRAN — In a political race most analysts predicted would hinge on domestic bread-and-butter issues, foreign policy has emerged as a major battleground -- and a potential Achilles' heel for Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
With campaigns for the June 12 presidential election in full swing, none of the three challengers have shied away from publicly criticizing Ahmadinejad on topics long considered off-limits for debate in Iran, such as his stance on the country's nuclear program and his vitriol for Israel.
Reformist challenger Mir-Hossein Mousavi accused the president of so sullying the nation that Iranian passports are now on par with those of Somalia, the African state that has become a hub of poverty, piracy and terrorism.
"Our people have not given you the right to disgrace them," he told supporters during a campaign stop in the city of Esfahan.
Mehdi Karroubi, another liberal challenger, took on the president's handling of the nuclear program, which Iran says is aimed at civilian energy production but the West believes is meant to eventually produce weapons. Karroubi said Tehran needed to be more transparent and rational in pursuing its goals abroad.
"We have to deal with the world differently," he said in a television appearance.
And even conservative contender Mohsen Rezai, a former commander of the Revolutionary Guard, accused Ahmadinejad of going overboard with his rhetoric on the Arab-Israeli conflict. Iran strongly opposes the Jewish state and supports the Palestinian cause through militant allies such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
"When we say we are revolutionary, it does not mean that we are seeking adventures," he said in a television interview Wednesday. "It means we have wisdom and discretion."
The criticism is startling given the recent call by the country's highest political and spiritual authority, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, for a hard-line stance that many saw as an implicit endorsement of the shape and tenor of Ahmadinejad's foreign policy.
"The supreme leader endorses all elected governments, but that does not imply that he dictates foreign policy," said Mojtaba Bigdeli, a political analyst close to Ahmadinejad.
Ahmadinejad has responded to the criticism by accusing his rivals of serving the interests of the West.
"Certain people bring up tomatoes as the country's leading issue at a time when the enemy is trying to spread the idea that sanctions have been effective in crippling Iran's economy," he said recently.
Iran's political system combines elements of a democratic republic with a structure dominated by Khamenei, who sets the parameters of the country's policies.
The president has limited but palpable leeway on foreign affairs. Mohammad Khatami, Ahmadinejad's predecessor, charmed the world by calling for a "dialogue of civilizations" to overcome tensions between Islam and the West. Ahmadinejad outraged the international community by convening a conference of those who doubt that the Holocaust took place.
"The constitution says that Iran should have good relations with Islamic countries and support the Palestinian cause, but the details and methods are not stipulated," said Ali Kadkhodazadeh, a Middle East analyst at Hamshahri, a daily newspaper that is the mouthpiece of Tehran's mayor, a rival of Ahmadinejad.
"The constitution does not say Iran should host a Holocaust-denial conference," he said. "If the president is changed, the methods will change, not the outlines and pillars of foreign policies."
Analysts say Ahmadinejad's opponents are tapping into deep-seated feelings of national pride to recast his policies on the nuclear issue and relations with the United States, and even on the Arab-Israeli conflict, as out of sync with the country's values and interests.
In the process, they are publicly leveling condemnations that would be highly sensitive if voiced by, say, a dissident or reformist newspaper.
For example, Esmail Gerami-Moqaddam, a spokesman for Karroubi's campaign, told reporters recently that Ahmadinejad had naively dismissed U.N. Security Council resolutions imposing sanctions as "trash papers" while they were hurting ordinary people.
Authorities for months strongly discouraged newspapers from mentioning or examining how international sanctions affect Iranians.
The Karroubi camp has also snidely urged the president to focus on "stabilizing the price of tomatoes" rather than managing world affairs.
To his critics, the president has created the opening by running a campaign that emphasizes Iran's international pride in accomplishments such as rocket launches and spinning centrifuges rather than economic achievements, which most agree were few during his four-year term.
"Though he himself uses 'nation of Iran' frequently in his speeches, President Ahmadinejad has tarnished our image and our national pride," said Yadullah Eslami, a former lawmaker close to the reformist camp.