Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was the first to vote in crucial presidential elections today, as he implored fellow Iranians to affirm the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic by voting – and cursed arch-foe America’s dismissal of the process.
Iran would defeat “enemy” efforts to spread “disappointment and pessimism,” Khamenei said after casting his ballot. Iran had no time for US officials who did not accept the election. "The hell with you," he said,ah using fighting words. “If the Iranian nation waited to see what you Americans accept and what you don’t, it would be a loser.”
The vote is to choose a successor to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose eight years in office have been marked by the crushing of the reformist Green Movement, deepening divisions among conservative factions, and unprecedented challenges to Khamenei’s rule. The victor will shape the tone if not substance of Iran’s foreign policy, its combative relations with the US and the West, and perhaps the trajectory of stalled nuclear negotiations.
At home, Iranians have also been buffeted by economic woes and the impact of tough, US-led sanctions over its nuclear program. And for many, the grim memory of the last fraud-tainted presidential vote in 2009, which reappointed Mr. Ahmadinejad but sparked weeks of protest and a violent regime crackdown, has bred reluctance to take part.
To boost turnout, state-run television broadcast scenes of crowds lining up to vote, adding patriotic and religious messages about every Iranian’s “duty” to participate. Within hours, Fars News had declared that a “political epic” had been achieved.
State-run IRIB interviewed an older man saying, “Every vote is another failure for the United States.” One young man told PressTV: “Power of Iran is not in its long-range missiles,” then, looking at a long line of people waiting to vote, he added, “This is the power of Iran.”
No tolerance for 'sedition'
Security forces have long vowed that they will not tolerate renewed “sedition.” And for the first time, Khamenei explicitly recognized on Wednesday that not all Iranians back the Islamic system, but asked them to vote anyway.
“Khamenei is inviting the people who don’t like the system back into the game, to be a player here,” says a veteran analyst in Tehran who asked not to be named. “This recognition … indicates that people up there are worried, they are nervous, they really need their power base to grow – at least they need to show to themselves and the outside world that the majority of people are with them.”
The voices from Iranian streets were a blend of duty among conservatives, joy among some at the possibility of reform-style change based on a last-minute surge by centrist candidate Hassan Rohani, and also deep skepticism from those who feel their vote has no value.
“I really, really don’t believe in the power of my vote,” says a law student from Iran’s northern Caspian region. “If there was even a tiny chance of changing something with just one vote, I would, [but] practically it's just humiliation, it’s really of no use.”
“I’m sure Rohani, no matter how popular he has become in the last two days, he is not going to be selected,” adds the law student. “If they think he’s a danger, and he shouldn’t be elected, they wouldn’t put him among those [final two].”
Aisan, a 28-year-old attorney in west Tehran, chose not to vote. “Even if we go and vote for Rohani, we will be giving the Supreme Leader exactly what he wants because he knows that people want to boycott the election. Even if Rohani is elected, he will not have any power to change the economy, the effect of sanctions, and the nuclear issue.”
On the other side of Iran's social and political divide, shopkeeper Esmail Ahmadi, 66, was enthusiastic about casting his ballot.
"Voting is a national religious duty, an important task we cannot forget," Mr. Ahmadi said. "The devils are against us, look at the sanctions, people are suffering….How many more examples do we need to believe their hostile attitude? We should stand against them and the polls are the right way to support the Islamic Republic."
IRIB interviewed a young woman, whose head scarf was askew in a manner that might normally have got her into trouble with Iran's social police. “Even if my hair is showing and my appearance may not be strictly Islamic," she said, "I want to tell foreign countries that we believe in our leader, Islam, and our country, and for their sake we will tolerate any difficulty caused by sanctions."
Iranian journalists had mixed experiences, with one reporting longer lines than he expected in wealthier areas of north Tehran, which would typically not vote for conservative candidates. Another in central Tehran told the Monitor that “all areas that were crowded four years ago were empty by comparison.”
Yet another reported that in central Tehran there were “longer lines for meat and bread than anyone trying to cast ballots.” By midday, Fars News Agency, which is close to the Revolutionary Guard, reported that Iran’s election had already achieved a “political epic.”
Rethinking plans to boycott the vote
For the 50 million-plus Iranians eligible to vote at 66,000 polling stations, an unexpected surge for Mr. Rohani prompted some to change their boycott plans and vote. Many expect a second-round runoff in a week’s time.
“I have come to destroy extremism, and when I see that these extremists are worried by my response and my vote, I am very happy,” said Rohani, a cleric and Iran’s former top nuclear negotiator, as he cast his ballot. “It means that with the help of the people we can instill the appropriate Islamic behavior in the country.”
Using the color purple and appropriating the language of civil rights, press freedom, and a less confrontational foreign policy – language associated with reformists, who have episodically demonstrated strong popular support in Iran since 1997 – Rohani was boosted this week by endorsements from former presidents Mohammad Khatami and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.
Rohani faces a slate of five conservative candidates who are close to Khamenei, but divided among themselves. Strongest among them is the popular Tehran Mayor Mohammad Baqr Qalibaf, a former police commander and veteran of the Iran-Iraq war, who is reported to have the backing of the Revolutionary Guard.
The recent history of reformist candidates is marked by danger in Iran’s political space. Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, both former senior government officials and reformist presidential candidates in 2009, were accused of sedition for leading the protests and remain under house arrest.
The several million Iranians who protested in 2009 – when official turnout was declared to be 85 percent – believed Mousavi was the landslide winner after an unforeseen surge in the final 10 days of the Mousavi campaign. Instead, incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was declared the victor by a 2-to-1 margin.
“Because [Rohani] is not known as a reformer, and he has not introduced himself as a reformer, there is a relatively high degree of tolerance from the conservative establishment towards him,” says the Tehran analyst.
“[But] there is no great movement, there is no national wave as we had four years ago, and as we had when Rafsanjani said he would run” a month ago, before he was disqualified, says the analyst.
“So [Rohani’s surge] is on a much, much smaller scale,” the analyst adds. “I haven’t felt the wave, the election has not become the talk in all homes, among families and at offices. We’ve had that experience before, and when Rafsanjani came, it was a huge thing; everybody was talking, everybody was hopeful for the future.”
The disqualification by the Guardian Council of Rafsanjani, a two-time president who ran the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s and oversaw the reconstruction of the country, shocked many Iranians after raising widespread expectations from a man long deemed a pillar of Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution.
Among them was Keyvan, who chose not to join voters crowding mosques in west Tehran, but to instead play badminton with his girlfriend.
“Let me be honest, when a politician like Hashemi Rafsanjani is disqualified and was not given the right to compete in the race, could you call it an election?” asked the 29-year-old.
“I’m not a big fan of Hashemi and many of the old politicians of this system, but … is he coming from Los Angeles as the opposition? Can you imagine – the commander of eight years of war, the most trusted right-hand man of [revolution founder] Imam Khomeini, and the person who’s held the highest positions in the most crucial times?” asks the man. “I’m not suggesting there will be cheating…no cheating will be necessary, the candidates are all the same … so I prefer a good holiday with my girlfriend.”
Scott Peterson reported from Istanbul; Two correspondents contributed reporting from Tehran.