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In Iran, runoff pits pragmatic cleric against hard-line mayor

TEHRAN, Iran—Former two-term Iranian president Hashemi Rafsanjani and Tehran's hard-line mayor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, will compete in an unprecedented runoff election for president as early as Friday, after voters failed to give any of seven candidates a majority.

Rafsanjani, 70, a conservative but pragmatic cleric whom polls had consistently labeled the front-runner in the most contested presidential race in Islamic Republic history, won barely 21 percent of the 29.5 million votes tallied Saturday. In an unusually strong showing bolstered by a recent wave of anti-Americanism, Iran's conservatives shot Ahmadinejad, 48, to second place with 19.4 percent of the votes.

A candidate would have had to win 50 percent plus one vote to gain a first-round victory.

The unexpected loser was Mostafa Moin, a former cabinet minister and the candidate most committed to political reform and improving relations with the United States. Reformist supporters of departing President Mohammad Khatami had pinned their hopes on Moin, but he trailed in fifth place, with 13.8 percent of the vote.

While reformers are now likely to support Rafsanjani, who advocates easing some social restrictions on Iranian women and youth, Moin's loss leaves Iran's conservatives in charge of all branches of government, which can only strengthen the existing Islamic system for years to come, analysts say.

"It's a disaster for the reformers," veteran sociologist Hamid Reza Jalaipour, who actively campaigned for Moin, said of the elections. "Iranian politics are so complicated."

Until recently, voter apathy and a lackluster campaign had threatened to deliver the poorest turnout in an Iranian presidential election since Islamic clerics came to power in 1979. With increasing pressure from the West over its nuclear program and a flagging economy that has angered Iranians, a marginal turnout could have undermined the legitimacy of the government.

But harsh statements by President Bush on Thursday, denouncing Iran's elections as a sham because unelected clerics would continue to wield most of the power, allowed them to go on the offensive. Iran's television and radio networks, run by the conservative leaders, repeatedly broadcast the American pronouncements and urged voters to strike out at Bush by going to the polls.

Nearly two-thirds of the eligible 46.8 million voters responded, giving the clerics the public affirmation they sought. Interior Ministry spokesman Johanbaksh Khanjani told reporters that turnout in some provinces was higher than 80 percent.

"You, the dear nation, you, the committed and enthusiastic youth, you, the faithful men and women, through your wise and large presence made Bush's insults backfire and showed your firm interest in the country's independence, defense of Islam and Islamic democracy," Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's Supreme Leader, said in a statement carried by the official Islamic Republic News Agency.

The third-place finisher, former parliament speaker and moderate cleric Mahdi Karroubi, Saturday demanded an investigation into reported interference by the Revolutionary Guard and civilian vigilante militias at the polls. Karroubi received 17.2 percent of the vote. There was no official response to the demand.

At a simultaneous news conference across town, Ahmadinejad declared himself a finalist for the runoff four hours before the Interior Ministry announced the final results.

He smiled when one Iranian reporter asked how he could say he was representing Iranians when less than 10 percent of the population had voted for him.

"To be popular, you don't have to have 100 percent of the votes," he replied.

Starting the news conference with prayers and accompanied by an entourage of men wearing thick beards and dark clothes associated with the country's radical fundamentalists, Ahmadinejad said he would strengthen core Islamic values in a system that had gone astray.

"Freedom is the spirit of the Islamic revolution," he said, when asked by a Western reporter whether he planned to turn back social and political reforms. Iran's "freedom is more comprehensive and deeper than what you believe in."

If Ahmadinejad wins, he would become the first non-cleric Iranian president since Mohammad Ali Rajai, another fundamentalist who was assassinated in 1981.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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