TEHRAN, Iran - The main pro-reform candidate accused hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of driving Iran toward "dictatorship" and hurting its standing in the world by questioning the Holocaust, during a rare and unprecedentedly raucous election debate yesterday.

During the 90-minute debate, televised live, Ahmadinejad and opponent Mir Hossein Mousavi traded frank and direct criticisms that are unheard of in Iranian politics, where clashes are usually veiled in elliptical, polite language.

Often, Mousavi appeared confident and repeatedly kept Ahmadinejad off balance with sweeping statements about Iran's internal troubles and its shortcomings on the international stage.

"Your method [of government] definitely leads to dictatorship," Mousavi told Ahmadinejad, who fidgeted in his chair often through the debate and gave scornful smiles as Mousavi spoke.

Mousavi also said that Iran had been "downgraded" in the eyes of the world by Ahmadinejad's firebrand style. Hours earlier, Ahmadinejad called the Holocaust a "big deception" and said Israel used it to sway international support.

"Our nation's dignity has been harmed," Mousavi said. "We've been degraded. There has been increasing tension [under Ahmadinejad]. . . . Is it in our interests?"

Mousavi and Ahmadinejad are in an increasingly tight race heading into the June 12 election. The outcome will set the tone of Iran's policies on crucial issues ahead such as its standoff with the West over its nuclear ambitions and the possibility of groundbreaking talks with Washington after a nearly 30-year diplomatic freeze.

Mousavi and the reformers are in favor of better ties with the West and greater freedoms at home, while Ahmadinejad has taken a tougher stance abroad and domestically.

In Paris, French President Nicolas Sarkozy told Iran's foreign minister, Manoucher Mottaki, that Iran faced greater isolation if it refused to negotiate over its nuclear program. Sarkozy also denounced Ahmadinejad's questioning of the Holocaust as "shocking."

Israeli Softens Iran Talk

Israel does not intend to bomb Iran, Israel's foreign minister said yesterday, stepping back from suggestions that it might attack a major foe it says is bent on developing nuclear weapons.

Speaking at the end of a three-day visit to Russia, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said Tehran's nuclear program was the world's problem, not just Israel's, and that its Arab neighbors should be even more concerned about it.

The remarks from Lieberman - a leading hawk in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's hard-line government - sounded strikingly softer than previous statements suggesting Israel might take military action against Iran.

Netanyahu has repeatedly said Iran must not be allowed to develop nuclear weapons, and has refused to rule out the use of force.

After his recent meeting in Washington with President Obama, Netanyahu said he and Obama agreed that Iran must not obtain nuclear weapons, and attempts to solve the problem through negotiations could not be unlimited in time.

Iran, whose president has expressed hatred of Israel, maintains its nuclear programs are designed only to provide electricity. But Israel, the United States, and other nations fear the effort is aimed at acquiring nuclear weapons.

- Associated Press