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Iran's supreme leader tells off U.S. critics of election

| Friday, June 14, 2013, 8:15 p.m.
An Iranian woman looks at a poster of the Iranian Presidential candidates during the Iranian presidential election at a Shi'ite mosque in Baghdad's Kadhimiya district, June 14, 2013. Millions of Iranians voted to choose a new president on Friday, urged by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to turn out in force to discredit suggestions by arch foe the United States that the election would be unfair. The country's 50 million eligible voters have a choice between six candidates to replace incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but none is seen as challenging the Islamic Republic's 34-year-old system of clerical rule. REUTERS/Thaier al-Sudani (IRAQ - Tags: ELECTIONS POLITICS)

TEHRAN — Iranians voted for a president on Friday, choosing from a list of six candidates who had been approved by the country's supreme leader, Shiite cleric Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who denounced American critics of the election process after casting his own ballot.

“You do not recognize our election? Go to hell!” he said in a reference to criticism from Obama administration officials. “Iranians have never cared for the enemy's remarks.”

Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman said last week in an interview with Radio Free Europe that the election “is not, by international standards, free, fair or credible.” She noted that the decision on who could run was made by the Guardians Council, which reports to Khamenei. “That is not an elected body. That is not an accountable body,” she said.

The comment could have been made by many Iranians who had said they would boycott the election out of disaffection with the system. But initial assessments suggested that the turnout was strong, and the Ministry of Interior, which implements election law, predicted that it would be 70 percent. To make sure, it delayed the polls' closing time twice, first to 8 p.m. and then to 11 p.m.

Voting is by paper ballot and each must be hand-counted, a process that takes four to five hours, with a final result expected early Saturday.

Pre-election polls gave a slight lead to Hasan Rowhani, a moderate conservative cleric endorsed by two reformist former presidents. Coming in second was Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, the popular mayor of Tehran.

Qalibaf, a former commander of the Revolutionary Guard Air Force, which protects the regime, was competing against other leading conservatives, none of whom would withdraw. A runoff is likely.

Turnout varied at four polling stations a McClatchy reporter visited Friday morning, with queues stretching out the door at one location - where Iranian state television was doing live broadcasts - and no queues at all in two other locations, one of them the Azam mosque in north-central Tehran.

A second visit to Azam, shortly before it closed at 11 p.m., brought a different picture - a turnout of 4,000, which supervisor Behrang Dolati said was double the number of the 2009 elections. He said most were young people, who had arrived with their families in late afternoon.

There are no voter registration rolls, and Iranians may vote anywhere in the country.

To protect against fraud, voters must bring their birth certificates, which have additional election pages filled with boxes, one of which an election official stamps, numbers and signs.

At the last election four years ago, when reformist candidate Mir Hossain Mousavi appeared the sure winner, the Interior Ministry reduced his vote and declared that Ahmadinejad had won, leading to nationwide demonstrations, a severe crackdown by security forces and Mousavi being arrested. He's still under house arrest, along with fellow reformer Mahdi Karroubi.

How the Interior Ministry intends to regain credibility for the voting process this year wasn't yet clear.

The head of election oversight at one location, who declined to give his name because he was uncertain whether he was authorized to talk to a reporter, told McClatchy: “I don't know what will happen to the results after we transmit them to the Ministry of the Interior, but here, I guarantee the protection of the vote.”

Voters and non-voters alike expressed despair about the economic and political situation, with one exception, a supporter of Saeed Jalili, who's Iran's chief negotiator in discussions about the country's nuclear program and the leading hard-liner in the contest.

“I like Jalili because he's tough,” said Nuri, 29, who's a university employee. He wouldn't give his full name for fear of adverse consequences, like many interviewed about the election. “Let the tension (with the international community) continue,” he said. “We don't care. The sanctions are good for us. We're having to develop our own economy.”

Ali Ahmadi, 70, a pensioner who has seen the buying power of his meager monthly income drop by three-quarters because of a currency devaluation, said he too would vote for Jalili, “Because I think he will take care of poor people.”

A passer-by overheard some of the conversation. He called out: “They're all crooks. I (defecate) on Jalili's father's grave.”

At Darband, in north Tehran, just below the Alborz mountains, young couples were out strolling, others were on their mountain bikes and elections seemed the furthest thing from their minds. “Whoever is elected, I wish them happiness. I have never voted,” said Hamid, 29, a university teacher. He said he was told that he should vote, but he wouldn't. But if he did, it would be for Rowhani.

Neda, 27, agreed. “No one of them is eligible, in my mind. Four years ago, I voted for Mousavi, and hoped he could make some changes. You see what happened.”

“People my age are hopeless and cynical about the future,” she added. Many of her friends had left Iran for other countries, and she's hoping to go to Australia, she said.

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