TEHRAN, Iran - As polls closed four hours late yesterday in Iran's most closely fought presidential election in the 26 years since the Islamic revolution, it appeared that none of the seven candidates would win a majority, resulting in an unprecedented runoff vote likely to pit former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani against reformist Mostafa Moin.
Aides to Moin voiced confidence that his come-from-behind campaign had edged out the three main conservative contenders, in a major blow for hard-line factions that had hoped to keep all reformers off the ballot and to win back the presidency after eight years of President Mohammad Khatami, who constantly battled for greater freedoms inside Iran.
No official returns were expected until late today, and there was no way to verify the Moin camp's optimism, reflected in a buoyant mood at its headquarters here, where smiling aides rushed back and forth beneath posters of the bald former education minister. Moin hopes to become the first non-clerical president of Iran since the early days of the revolution.
One of Moin's campaign supporters, Mohsen Safaee Farahani, former head of the Iranian soccer federation, read off numbers from a small slip of paper in his hand of returns he said he had obtained from a remote town in the Central Province where votes had already been counted. In one, he said, Moin had obtained 10,003 votes out of 15,030 ballots cast; in another 218 of 340; in a third, 104 of 140.
"This is unbelievable for us," he said with a grin. "We did not advertise in this area because we could not afford it. It shows that our message has reached outside of Tehran."
"Some people boycotted because they have lost confidence that things will get better. But if Moin gets to the second round, I believe most of those who boycotted will come back to him."
Some initial results of overseas voting also appeared encouraging for Moin, who at first had been denied a spot on the ballot by the conservative-controlled Council of Guardians, which oversees Iranian elections and decides who may run. The council reversed itself and allowed Moin and a second reformer on the ballot after the intervention of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final word in all state matters.
According to a press official in Tehran, the overseas tallies were running 27 percent for Rafsanjani, 26 percent for Moin and 24 percent for the conservative mayor of Tehran, Mahmud Ahmadinezhad. The other main hard-line contenders were former head of broadcasting Ali Larijani and the former national police commander Mohammad Baqer Ahmadinezhad.
Another Moin campaign official, Feyzollah Arabsorkhi, a former deputy trade minister, cautioned against putting too much weight on the fragments so far reaching the campaign.
Critics of the Iranian regime had argued for an election boycott to demonstrate opposition to a system that bestows ultimate power to the supreme religious leader, Khamenei. A boycott could have been seen as a sign of disapproval of the state.
Officials attempted to use the sharp criticism Thursday by President Bush of the fairness of the Iranian election to their advantage to prod voters to the polls, saying it would be the best riposte.
"The people's participation in this election is ... proof that the U.S. president's remarks regarding Iran's presidential election are quite worthless," said Foreign Minister Kamal Karrazi, after casting his vote in Tehran.
Both Rafsanjani, a merchant-mullah who was once a confidant of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and Moin, a hero of the reform movement since he backed students during clashes in 1999, have argued for greater engagement with the United States as Iran faces heightened pressure from Washington to democratize and to end its nuclear power program.
Moin has said he would build on the legacy of Khatami, who advocated more personal liberties at home and a "dialogue of civilizations" abroad, but who was often stymied in his reforms by conservatives controlling the judiciary and the security services through Khameini.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.