- The Washington Times - Friday, June 24, 2005

TEHRAN — Iranians clogged polling stations in a tight presidential election yesterday, choosing between a powerful cleric who liberals hope will protect Iran’s reforms and an ultraconservative who tapped into deep resentment over the nation’s economic woes.

The country’s first runoff vote reflected sharply differing visions for the future of Iran and its relations with the West. But for many Iranians, it came down to a choice over what weighs more heavily on their minds: the fate of reform or Iran’s shattered economy.

“The real nuclear bomb that Iran has is its unemployed young people,” said Ali Pourassad, who voted for hard-liner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Mr. Ahmadinejad, the 49-year-old mayor of Tehran and a former Republican Guard commander, has presented himself as a champion of the poor in a country where unemployment is as high as 30 percent. But he has also vowed a return to the rigid principles of the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

That stance has sent liberals and business leaders rushing into the arms of his opponent, Hashemi Rafsanjani, an insider of Iran’s theocracy.

While many reformers have been suspicious of the 70-year-old Mr. Rafsanjani in the past, they were more afraid Mr. Ahmadinejad will crush the greater social freedoms and openings to the West won over the past decade.

For other voters, Mr. Rafsanjani — who was president from 1989-1997 — represented a steady hand to guide Iran.

“It’s about experience. Ahmadinejad doesn’t have the experience. He should stay as mayor of Tehran, not try to run the country,” said Parvaneh Mansouri, barely visible beneath her black chador pulled tight around her face in a wholesale food market in Tehran after voting for Mr. Rafsanjani.

Heavy turnout forced authorities to extend voting for nearly four hours. The first results were expected in the early hours today.

Mr. Ahmadinejad, said to be backed by the hard-line core of Iran’s theocracy, broke into yesterday’s runoff after coming out of nowhere to win the No. 2 spot in the vote a week ago. That stunned Mr. Rafsanjani, who had been touted as the favorite but only finished with 20 percent, ahead by a half percentage point margin.

The first-round vote was marred by accusations that Republican Guards and their vigilante allies intimidated voters in favor of Mr. Ahmadinejad.

During yesterday’s voting, the reformist-led Interior Ministry reported “interference” at some Tehran polling stations. A ministry worker who was at a polling station reminding officials to watch for violations was arrested after he got into an argument with representatives of one of the two candidates, ministry spokesman Jahanbakhsh Khanjani said.

An Interior Ministry observers’ group reported 300 complaints of violations in Tehran, said group leader Ibrahim Razini.

Mr. Ahmadinejad’s surprise strength alarmed moderates and business groups at home and was watched with concern by international officials. Mr. Ahmadinejad would likely be a tough negotiating partner in Iran’s talks with Europe over its nuclear program, which the United States contends aims to develop a nuclear weapon. Iran says the program is only for producing energy.

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