TEHRAN, (Asharq Al-Awsat and Agencies) – Iranians streamed to polling stations on Friday in a hotly contested election and a senior ally of Mir Hossein Mousavi said the moderate candidate was on track to defeat hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
An Ahmadinejad adviser dismissed the claim as “psychological war” and said the outcome was impossible to predict. They were speaking a few hours before voting was officially due to end at 6 p.m. (1330 GMT). It was later extended by one hour due to long queues, the Interior Ministry said.
Former Revolutionary Guard leader Mohsen Rezaie who is running against Ahmadinejad told Asharq Al-Awsat, “After three years of positives and negatives, ups and downs, the Islamic Republic system has strengthened its roots, as we can see that no force in the country or in the international arena is seeking to overthrow the regime. As a result of this new situation, Iran’s status has been established as a major regional power militarily, politically and economically and in the field of security.” He further added, “Our people deserve to live better lives, and the sacrifices they have made over the past thirty years place an important and serious responsibility upon us.”
A victory for presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi might help ease tensions with the West, which is concerned about Tehran’s nuclear ambitions, and improve chances of engagement with U.S. President Barak Obama who has talked about a new start in ties with Tehran.
Sadegh Kharazi, an ally of the former prime minister, told Reuters that surveys made by reformers showed Mousavi was getting enough votes to win outright in the first round. “I can say that based on our surveys … Mousavi is getting 58-60 pct of the vote and we are the winner,” he said.
Ahmadinejad adviser Ali Akbar Javanfekr said in response: “How can they predict? This is a psychological war they launched to influence voting.”
Long queues formed at voting centres and the Interior Ministry said it expected a turnout of more than 70 percent, approaching the record of nearly 80 percent when reformist Mohammad Khatami swept the 1997 presidential election.
Some people said they had waited for more than two hours to cast ballots, both in northern, affluent areas of Tehran where Mousavi draws support and in southern, poorer neighbourhoods seen as Ahmadinejad strongholds. High turnout could indicate voting by many pro-reformers who stayed away when Ahmadinejad won four years ago on a pledge to revive the values of the 1979 Islamic revolution, although political analysts have said they expect a close race.
The vote has generated interest around the world with policymakers looking for signs of a change of approach by Tehran, whose ties with the West worsened under Ahmadinejad.
For Iranians it is a chance to pass judgment on his management of the Islamic Republic’s oil exporting economy.
Although Ahmadinejad, 52, says his government has revived economic growth and curbed price rises, inflation and high unemployment were the main campaign issues. Official inflation is around 15 percent.
Social issues, such as strict dress codes for women, as well as Iran’s ties with the outside world, also featured in the campaign but the outcome of the vote will not bring a major shift in Iran’s foreign policy, which is determined by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The United States has had no ties with Iran since shortly after the revolution, but Obama has offered a new relationship if Tehran “unclenches its fist”.
Mousavi, 67, rejects Western demands that Iran halt uranium enrichment but analysts say he would bring a different approach to Iran-U.S. ties and talks on Tehran’s nuclear programme, which the West fears is a cover to build bombs. Iran denies this.
“People’s strong, revolutionary and clear decision will bring about a bright future for the nation,” Ahmadinejad, a self-styled champion of the poor with strong support in rural areas, said while voting in a working class part of Tehran. The three-week election campaign was marked by mudslinging, with Ahmadinejad accusing his rivals of corruption. They said he was lying about the state of the economy.
Mousavi’s wife Zahra Rahnavard broke new ground in the conservative Islamic state by actively campaigning for her husband, a move hailed by women’s rights activists.
Preliminary results are expected early on Saturday. If none of the candidates win 50 percent of the votes, a run-off will be held on June 19 between the two front-runners.
Businessman Ahmad Vakili, 45, said he voted for the first time to deny Ahmadinejad a second term: “It is essential for Iran to have a moderate president not a hardliner. The economy is failing, foreign diplomacy is not working,” he said.
Student Mohammad Ravanbakhsh voted for the incumbent: “Only some rich people vote for moderates. Ahmadinejad understands poor people. He understands ordinary Iranians. He is one of us.”
Ahmadinejad’s election rivals, who also include liberal cleric Mehdi Karoubi and Mohsen Rezaie, have urged the Interior Ministry and Khamenei to ensure there is no vote rigging.
Ahmadinejad has ruled out any possibility of fraud.
Voting in Tehran alongside his wife, Mousavi said some of his representatives were denied access to polling stations to monitor the process. He also said text messaging, used to reach young voters during the campaign, had been closed down. “I thank all the people for their green presence which created a miracle,” he said, referring to the colours worn by his backers who thronged Tehran streets during the campaign.