Iranians headed to the polls to vote in presidential elections on Friday with the reformist camp united behind one candidate, Hassan Rohani, and the hardliners split between several.
The Interior Ministry announced that voting, initially due to end at 1:30 p.m. GMT, would be extended by several hours, Iran's Press TV reported in mid-afternoon. In the past, authorities have cited such extensions as evidence of a high turnout.
It is unlikely the results will significantly change Tehran’s policies, since it is Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei who wields ultimate authority.
Khamenei cast his ballot on live television on Friday morning, urging a large voter turnout in the presidential election.
"Our dear nation should come (to vote) with excitement and liveliness, and know that the destiny of the country is in their hands and the happiness of the country depends on them."
Khamenei derided Western misgivings about the credibility of the vote.
"I recently heard that someone at the US National Security Council said 'we do not accept this election in Iran'. We don't give a damn," he said.
Khamenei made sure that no candidate who challenged his views could run in the election.
The hardline candidates with the best chance are Saeed Jalili, Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator – who some consider ideologically closest to Khamenei; Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, Tehran’s mayor and an ex-military and police commander – who may attract votes in the capital where residents respect the competent administrator who has not tried to make unpopular inroads into people’s private lives; and veteran diplomat Ali Akbar Velayati – who is very close to the supreme leader, but probably has the least chance of winning the vote.
Prof. Meir Litvak of the department of Middle Eastern history and the director of the Alliance Center of Iranian Studies at Tel Aviv University told The Jerusalem Post he does not think the election is meaningless, even though it is not democratic.
“If there is a low turnout, it will be a blow to the regime’s prestige, hence they exert the effort to increase turnout,” he said.
“The criticism to which Jalili was subjected during the TV debates was unprecedented and could be indirectly applied to Khamenei. It shows that the candidates are deeply concerned about the impact of the sanctions,” said Litvak.
Even Rohani, the sole “moderate” in the race, behind whom the reform camp is united as a last resort, was a long-time regime supporter and an early follower of the leader of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
Rohani’s criticism of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s unbending policy toward the West over the country’s nuclear program, and his past service under the reformist ex-president Mohammad Khatami, have gained him support from reformists.
In an interview with the Arabic newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat published on Thursday, Rohani said Israel was behind a campaign of disinformation to label Tehran’s “peaceful nuclear activities” a weapons program.
“The United States and its allies have to stop this deceit,” Rohani told the Saudi-owned newspaper.
He would judge US President Barack Obama “by his actions, not his words,” he said, and called for sanctions to be lifted in order for ties to improve.
Rohani also defended the embattled Syrian regime, saying it was the “only country in the region to resist Israeli expansionist policies and practices.”
Litvak speculated that if Rohani made it to a second round of voting, things could get very interesting, but doubted he could win.
If no candidate gets 50 percent of the vote on Friday, a runoff will be held a week later.
Of the three main hardliners running, Jalili has run a strong campaign but has been heavily criticized, even by fellow hardliners, for his intransigence in nuclear talks and for failing to stop the imposition of tough new sanctions.
Meir Javedanfar, a lecturer on Iranian politics at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, told the Post it is difficult to predict if there will be unrest as a result of the election, though he noted there is a lot of dissatisfaction among Iranians.
He thought it most likely that Qalibaf would win. However, if the elections went to a second round, he said he thought Jalili would have a better chance.
Javedanfar thinks that the lack of executive experience of Jalili is a disadvantage and an advantage for Qalibaf who is perceived to be a successful mayor. Like Litvak, he said there was a small chance Rohani could win, as the regime has “little patience for someone who wants better relations with West.”
Harold Rhode, a senior fellow at the New-York-based Gatestone Institute and a former official at the US Department of Defense, told the Post that “the election is a sham, a joke, and the most likely winner is Jalili.”
“In the grand scheme of things, this is irrelevant, as there is a complete lack of interest in these elections,” said Rhode, adding that “what matters to Iranians is not the nuclear program, but regime change. If they could really vote I have little doubt they would vote for a new regime not controlled by a few mullahs.
“I have a lot of experience with senior Shi’ite establishment clerics in Iraq and Iran, and most of the mullahs hate the regime because they believe the regime is destroying Islam,” said Rhode.
Most Shi’ite clerics are classical Twelvers, believing that until the Mahdi, the prophesied redeemer of Islam, returns, all political rule is illegitimate.
Many clerics “just don’t go to the mosque as a way of protesting the regime,” Rhode said.
He said it is possible that what happened in Turkey could happen in Iran, as Iranians have an enormous amount of pent-up anger. He added that the West should be helping the Iranian people liberate themselves from tyranny.
Concerning the opposition, Prof. David Yerushalmi, a senior fellow at the Alliance Center of Iranian Studies at Tel Aviv University, said his impression from reading the opposition Iranian press is that there is not much enthusiasm for this election.
Iranians live in urban centers and Tehran is really the key city, and people there have “no trust in the system,” he said.
From a historical point of view, Yerushalmi said, since the end of the 19th century there has been no real aspiration for liberal and democratic ideas in Iran, except among the small educated elite.
He added that the West’s knowledge of opposition groups in the country is limited.
In any case, he said, they are divided and have been unable to produce any visible leader.
None of the candidates left is talking about changing the policies of the past four years, Yerushalmi said. He predicted the vote would go to a second round.