Iran’s presidential election candidates engaged in a fiery and bruising first television debate on Saturday, during which one promised to put another, the former governor of the central bank, on trial for treason and ban him and some other members of the government from leaving the country.

The threat to put Abdolnaser Hemmati on trial was made by the former leader of the Revolutionary Guards Mohsen Rezaei, currently secretary of the Expediency Council. He claimed the currency had been devalued so much by Hemmati that “the train of the revolution has turned into a scooter”.

The new president will replace Hassan Rouhani, a pragmatist who twice won landslide votes against hardline opponents after campaigning to open up Iran’s economy to the world. Rouhani had only limited success, after the US abandoned a nuclear agreement and reimposed sanctions.

Hemmati pleaded with a third candidate, Ebrahim Raisi, the clear frontrunner and head of the judiciary, to stop using his surrogates to threaten him.

The three-hour debate, ahead of the 18 June election, was widely criticised in mainstream news outlets for the candidates’ failure to answer questions and for a format that placed central issues such as the future of the nuclear deal and the Covid crisis out of bounds.

The narrow focus on the state of the economy had the effect of putting Hemmati on the back foot as five conservative-inclined candidates ganged up on him to portray him as the incumbent and blame him for his stewardship, especially for high inflation and the collapse of the exchange rate.

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Hemmati hit back by saying most of the other candidates were simply cover for Raisi and dared them to give an undertaking they would not pull out of the race before polling day. He said he was proud he had not allowed Iran to go the way of Venezuela, adding he was standing to prevent the country’s economy becoming the same as North Korea’s, a reference to the heavy emphasis on state planning in his rival’s proposals.

He also chastised official news channels for their positive portrayals of Raisi, saying his rival was ill-equipped to run the economy and only made colourful promises that could not be fulfilled.

Hemmati had started the event by saying he regretted no women had been permitted by the Guardian Council to stand, and ended by pleading with Iranian voters to abandon their apathy.

He ridiculed Rezaei’s remarks that the country’s foreign exchange earnings could be boosted by taking western soldiers hostage. “We have been waiting for several months for him to announce his plan in this regard,” Hemmati said. He also accused Raisi of only securing an economics degree by forcing university professors to give him one.

The other moderate standing, Mohsen Mehralizadeh, said he respected Raisi’s seminary studies but said this hardly equipped him to run a country of more than 82 million people as he had completed only six grades of traditional education and had no executive economic leadership experience. Raisi’s team denied this allegation.

Most of the conservatives put forward proposals about how they intended to boost production and help the poor, prompting Hemmati to say that “with their promises, these candidates are in practice talking about the distribution of poverty, not the distribution of wealth”.

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