- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 18, 2005

TEHRAN — Iran headed toward the first runoff presidential election in its current history as a key government official today predicted that none of the seven candidates, including the favorite contender, Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, would win enough votes for outright victory.

Turnout in yesterday’s vote appeared stronger than expected and polls stayed open an extra four hours, with voting booths even set up at Tehran’s main cemetery for those paying weekly visits to family graves.

An Interior Ministry official involved in the counting said a second round of voting would take place next Friday, the first time since the 1979 Iranian Revolution that a second round of voting has been required. He said the vote count he had seen makes it impossible for any one candidate to collect the required 51 percent to win.

The results of next week’s runoff would decide who inherits a long list of challenges, including nuclear talks with the West and demands for reform at home.

Some credited U.S. denunciations of the election for goading more Iranians to cast ballots after a Western-style campaign that has reshaped Iranian politics. A runoff would almost certainly include Mr. Rafsanjani, a political veteran and leader of the Islamic Revolution who now portrays himself as a steady hand for uneasy times.

With 90 percent of the votes tallied in his home province of Kerman in southern Iran, Mr. Rafsanjani took only 45 percent of the votes, Rasoul Moazemi, provincial election official said. Mr. Rafsanjani’s son, Mahdi, who has been working on the campaign, said that he did not expect his father to get the 51 percent of the popular vote he would need to avoid a runoff.

The bigger question is how voters will treat Mr. Rafsanjani’s main rivals: a former police chief backed by conservatives, and another allied with outgoing President Mohammad Khatami’s stumbling reform movement.

Final results were expected later today.

In the impoverished area of south Tehran, women in black chadors waited up to 30 minutes to vote. In posh northern suburbs, young women in colorful head scarves and bright lipstick called friends on cell phones to urge them to vote. Ballot stations were set up in shrines as well as the cemetery.

Helicopters ferried ballot boxes to nomads in their summer pastures. In the blistering plains near the Persian Gulf, election officials used palm branches to make shade for voters waiting in temperatures that surpassed 100 degrees.

Voting was extended for four hours because of long lines. A strong turnout was believed likely to benefit both Mr. Khatami’s protege, Mostafa Moin, and Mr. Rafsanjani, 70, who served as president from 1989 to 1997 and later became a top adviser to the theocracy.

“Fight the enemy by casting a vote,” said Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — head of the nonelected Islamic theocracy whose near-absolute power can override both the president and parliament.

After polls closed, Interior Ministry spokesman Johanbakhsh Khanjani announced turnout in some provinces had exceeded 80 percent. In others it varied between 65 percent and 80 percent. Turnout reached nearly 67 percent four years ago in a Khatami landslide.

All Iranians understood Ayatollah Khamenei’s code word for the United States and other foes of the nation’s Islamic system. On Thursday, President Bush denounced the election as a futile exercise since the clerics retain the real power — comments hard-liners in Iran said would only inspire more Iranians to vote.

But many voters appeared to draw most enthusiasm from the range of choices — a seven-candidate field spanning from Mr. Moin to hard-liners with ties to the regime’s military guardians.

Mr. Moin, 54, a former culture minister, is considered the heir of Mr. Khatami’s eight-year legacy — which permitted groundbreaking social freedoms such as dating and wide-open Internet access, but failed to chip away at the ruling clerics’ power.

Mr. Moin has promised to name Mr. Khatami’s brother as vice president. Mr. Khatami was prevented from running for a third term by the Iranian constitution.

Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, 44, who appealed to conservatives, is a former head of the national police and is credited with bringing more professionalism on the force.

But anti-regime activists who are disillusioned about the prospect of change in a system run by clerics urged “none of the above.” Boycott appeals had been carried on Web sites, pamphlets and satellite TV programs from the large Iranian community around Los Angeles — given the local nickname “Tehrangeles.”

“We want to show the world empty streets,” said Homa Sarshar, a journalist who works for one of the Los Angeles-based stations backing a boycott.

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