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2 candidates challenge results of Iran's presidential election


TEHRAN, Iran - Two reform candidates angrily challenged the results of Iran's presidential election yesterday, charging that hard-line factions manipulated the vote in favor of the conservative mayor of Tehran, a former member of the Revolutionary Guard with limited political experience.

At a raucous news conference, third-place finisher Mehdi Karroubi claimed that conservatives had denied him his rightful place in Friday's runoff election between the two top vote-getters.

Another reformer echoed the complaint. Mostafa Moin had been considered a likely challenger to the front-runner, former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, but he finished fifth out of seven candidates.

After a day of sometimes contradictory information, election officials confirmed late yesterday that Tehran Mayor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had come in second, only 1 1/2 percentage points behind Rafsanjani. The former president, a 70-year-old centrist, will face the 49-year-old Ahmadinejad in the first presidential runoff in the 26-year history of the Islamic republic.

Rafsanjani, a one-time confidant of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, has spoken of the need for greater engagement with the United States.

Ahmadinejad, who was an unknown when he was picked to run Tehran's city government two years ago, has said better relations with the United States are not a priority. He has also been quoted as ruling out any retreat by Iran from its nuclear program, which the country says is for peaceful purposes. The United States and the European Union say Iran is attempting to acquire nuclear weapons.

"Access to nuclear technology is an inalienable right of Iran, and the world ought to recognize our rights," Ahmadinejad has said.

Moin's finish came as a bitter disappointment to followers and aides, who were counting on him to build on the policy of gradual liberalization carried out for the last eight years by incumbent Mohammad Khatami. A campaign aide to Moin spoke darkly of a "coup d'etat" being carried out by the Revolutionary Guard and the conservative watchdog Council of Guardians, which oversees elections and decides who can run.

At Karroubi's chaotic news conference, where reporters and photographers tripped over each other and broke into scuffles as they vied for position, Karroubi announced that he was sending an appeal to the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to review the election.

"There has been bizarre interference. Money has changed hands," Karroubi said. He claimed to have proof for his charges, but he did not produce it at the news conference.

Meanwhile, he asked supporters to avoid public demonstrations. And just days after President Bush had sharply questioned the fairness of the election, he said any foreign governments' comments on the dispute would not be helpful.

While Tehran residents waited for the officials results, they went back to work yesterday on a hot, summer day. Shops were open, and newsstands were full of colorful papers carrying pictures of the candidates.

Ahmadinejad had been rated an extreme dark horse going into the election, based on the country's admittedly unreliable opinion polling, but it was difficult to evaluate whether the reformers' complaints were merited.

During voting Friday, reporters noted that many people talked positively of the mayor, especially in poor and working-class areas.

While regarded as an extreme hard-liner in the affluent north of Tehran, he had emerged as a favorite of the "bazaaris" in the south of the city, the workers and shop owners who provided the shock troops for Khomeini's Islamic Revolution in 1979.

Conservatives said Ahmadinejad did well because of his piety and his simple, sincere approach to the voters that contrasted with the glitzy Western-style advertisements adopted by most of the other candidates.

Suspicions about the election results arose in early morning hours yesterday, when the conservative Council of Guardians and the Ministry of Interior seemed to be issuing dueling voting results.

The Council of Guardians claimed, apparently prematurely, that Ahmadinejad was in the lead. Normally, it is the Interior Ministry that announces results.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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