- The Washington Times - Friday, June 12, 2009

QOM, Iran | Iran’s cliffhanger presidential election ended Friday with both major candidates claiming victory, raising the prospect of deepening divisions in an already polarized society.

Despite record turnout that many analysts said would favor the challenger, Mir Hossein Mousavi, the state-run Islamic Republic News Agency said incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had won re-election.

Mr. Mousavi, who campaigned on a platform of domestic reform and outreach to the West, told a press conference in Tehran that he was the “definite winner” and complained of what he called voting “irregularities” including a shortage of ballots in several major cities, among them Tabriz, Shiraz and Isfahan.

“We are waiting for the counting of votes to officially end and explanations of these irregularities be given,” he said.

In Qom, Iran’s theological center, armed guards and elections overseers mixed with bearded men and chador-shrouded women in the sexually segregated main square of the Shrine of Fatemeh Masoumeh. Heavy voter turnout prompted polling to be extended until midnight. Aside from the tanking Iranian economy and official inflation at 24 percent, relations with the West figured heavily in the minds of voters.

“America has offered negotiations so we have to see who can best take advantage of this,” said Mohammad Ghiasi, a civil servant sitting in prayer inside the shrine. “I think Mr. Ahmadinejad is best suited for doing this.”

Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, said, however, that U.S. engagement with Iran would be harder if Mr. Ahmadinejad wins.

“Whoever wins, the most powerful official will remain [Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei,” Mr. Sadjadpour said, referring to the Shi’ite Muslim cleric who has the final say on Iran’s foreign and defense policies.

But given Mr. Ahmadinejad’s belligerent comments denying the Holocaust and threatening Israel, “it would be infinitely easier under a Mousavi presidency,” Mr. Sadjadpour said.

“Mr. Ahmadinejad’s mere presence serves as a near insurmountable obstacle to building confidence with Iran and makes it infinitely more difficult for the Obama administration to compromise on the nuclear issue,” Mr. Sadjadpour added.

In Tehran, Mousavi supporters appeared to predominate but not so in Qom. The city houses dozens of seminaries that nurtured the clerics and thinkers who participated in the 1979 revolution that saw Iran transformed from a monarchy to an Islamic republic. The city is also one of the most cosmopolitan in Iran, with a shifting population of seminary students from Muslim countries with Shi’ite populations in Asia, the Arab world and Africa.

As locals voted at six polling stations within the grounds of the shrine, a sudden storm gusted through the city, whipping plastic bags and women’s chadors in its wake.

“We have to make a future for our country,” said Abulfazl Kendi, 20, an unemployed university graduate. “I will vote for Ahmadinejad even though I don’t have a job in the hope that in the next four years he’ll manage to finish off what he started.”

The incumbent president has sought popularity by attacking corruption and promising a more equitable distribution of Iran’s oil wealth.

However, his charges in televised debates that Iran’s senior clerics are corrupt drew a mixed reception.

“If Ahmadinejad gets elected having accused our holiest men of being liars and thieves, he’ll have lost his credibility,” said Mojtaba Motalinejad, a cleric in Qom’s main square.

Hundreds of believers bearing indelible ink on their fingers flooded from the voting stations into the holy shrine. In the crush of people, they struggled to brush against the metal girdings surrounding the tomb of Fatemeh Masoumeh whose touch is believed to deliver blessings.

“The people who were out in the streets are those who want too much freedom,” said Mr. Ghiasi, the civil servant, watching lines of devotees filing past the shrine. “Mousavi’s stadium appearances were attended by badly veiled women while Mr. Ahmadinejad’s were watched by ladies in appropriate hejab (veils) and respectable men who wouldn’t go out into the streets to shout and scream.”

Tension has marked this most polarized of Iranian elections. Thousands of protesters flooded the streets of Tehran in unprecedented public demonstrations prompting government officials to accuse the Mousavi camp of staging a counterrevolution.

“Young people and the middle class are conscious, they have access to the Internet and satellite television,” said Ahmad Jamrasi, 36, a security official at the shrine. “Our people watched the U.S. presidential elections go on for two years amid live debates and realized that elections are a process rather than a gift.”

Ayatollah Khamenei urged calm amongst the populace and reminded voters that voting was a religious duty. Heavy security presence was visible in streets and election stations while reformist sites and SMS messages were blocked from the eve of the election onwards. Unrest outside a polling station in the Tehran neighborhood of Ghaytariyyeh prompted riot police to respond with tear gas. As night descended and the counting of votes continued, power blackouts sunk sections of Tehran into darkness.

“I’m not voting for anyone,” said Mustafa Ishaqi, a colonel in the Iranian army and veteran of the Iran-Iraq War who drives a taxi as his second job. “That thing we wanted has gone. It’s not a revolution anymore, it’s a government.”

Barbara Slavin in Washington contributed to this report.

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