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Iranian Presidential Vote Heads Toward Runoff

SCOTT SIMON, host:

History is in the making in Iran this weekend. That nation faces its first run-off presidential election ever. A former Iranian president and the mayor of Tehran have reportedly finished first and second in a field of seven. Voters will make a final selection on Friday. NPR's Ivan Watson joins us from Tehran.

Ivan, thanks for being with us.

IVAN WATSON reporting:

You're welcome, Scott.

SIMON: And what do we know about the results so far?

WATSON: Well, we don't have a final, published result, but it does seem that the expected front-runner, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, is in first place according to the last tally. He's the former president of Iran, one of the wealthiest men in Iran and a cleric who was one of the architects of the Islamic Revolution, so it was pretty surprising when he ran on a pretty Reformist platform pledging to open a new chapter of detente with the United States and to attract foreign investment and relax social restrictions on the youth.

Now the next two places are still a bit up in the air. One of our sources at the Interior Ministry here, which is doing the count, says that the hard-line conservative mayor of Tehran has taken second place. His name is Mahmud Ahmadinejad, and he seems to have gotten the support of some hard-line conservative organizations here, like the Basij militia organization. And some of the Iranians who boycotted yesterday's election to protest against the regime say already now that if it comes to a runoff between these two candidates next week that they will vote for Rafsanjani. Now there's a third person here whose name is Mehdi Karrubi. He's a cleric who dubbed himself the sheik of reform. He had a surprise strong showing here, and he seems to have cried foul already, according to recent reports, demanding an investigation, and he's claiming that some military groups intimidated voters, that he should be second place. He promised $60 a month to each Iranian if he was elected.

SIMON: Ivan, let me ask you about the turnout, which I guess was north of 60 percent. There were people that thought the turnout would be depressed by the fact that you had a thousand candidates who tried to run; only seven in the end. Women were not permitted to run. And as you note, many reformers were urging a boycott of the election. What seems to have happened?

WATSON: I'm not quite sure. I was really quite surprised, and many Iranians have expressed surprise as well, because during the run-up to this election, during the last week, nearly everybody I talked to criticized the system here, criticized the Iranian regime, and many said there was little point in voting. And yet when I went to the polls yesterday, you had long lines. I didn't hear that same criticism. Instead, I was hearing message of unity, people saying it was their duty to vote, that they had finally made up their minds between the seven candidates, and some said they'd voted in response to criticism to the West, specifically a message from President Bush on the eve of the election calling it undemocratic. This was spun a bit by state-controlled media that said President Bush was telling Iranians not to vote, and so some people said, `I'm going out to--he doesn't have a right to tell me what to do.'

SIMON: Ivan, is there going to be a reformer in the runoff--or I guess will that be determined in the next couple of days?

WATSON: It'll be determined by tonight whether it is one of these two candidates in second place. The runoff should take place on Friday, and it's unprecedented. Nobody's ever seen a runoff since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

SIMON: OK. Thank you very much. NPR's Ivan Watson speaking with us from Tehran about results of the election there. As Ivan mentioned, a runoff will be held on Friday.

SIMON: And the time is now 18 minutes past the hour. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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