TEHRAN, Iran (AP) – None of the seven candidates in Iran’s presidential election won an outright majority, setting the stage for the first presidential runoff in the country’s history, a government official said today.

With one-third of the votes counted, the favorite candidate Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani was in a virtual dead heat with conservative-turned-reformer, Mahdi Karroubi, according to the state-run Islamic Republic News Agency, or IRNA.

An Interior Ministry official involved in the counting told The Associated Press that a second round of voting would take place on June 24. He said the vote count he had seen makes it impossible for any one candidate to collect more than 50 percent, the condition for avoiding a runoff.

According to IRNA, Karroubi, a former Parliament speaker but a close ally of Iran’s Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, had 22 percent of the roughly 14 million votes counted by early Saturday, while Rafsanjani had 21.3 percent. Those returns did not include urban areas, which could significantly change the balance in favor of Rafsanjani and the reform-minded Mostafa Moin, a former culture minister.

Turnout in Friday’s vote appeared stronger than expected and polls stayed open an extra four hours, with voting booths even set up at Tehran’s main cemetery for those paying weekly visits to family graves.

The results of next week’s run-off would decide who inherits a long list of challenges, including nuclear talks with the West and demands for reform at home.

Some credited U.S. denunciations of the election for goading more Iranians to cast ballots after a Western-style campaign that has reshaped Iranian politics. A runoff would almost certainly include Rafsanjani, a political veteran and leader of the Islamic Revolution who now portrays himself as a steady hand for uneasy times.

With 90 percent of the votes tallied in his home province of Kerman in southern Iran, Rafsanjani took only 45 percent of the votes, Rasoul Moazemi, provincial election official told The Associated Press.

The bigger question is how voters will treat Rafsanjani’s main rivals: a former police chief backed by conservatives, and another allied with outgoing President Mohammad Khatami’s stumbling reform movement.

Final results were expected Saturday.

In the impoverished area of south Tehran, women in black chadors waited up to 30 minutes to vote. In posh northern suburbs, young women in colorful head scarves and bright lipstick called friends on cell phones to urge them to vote. Ballot stations were set up in shrines as well as the cemetery.

Helicopters ferried ballot boxes to nomads in their summer pastures. In the blistering plains near the Gulf, election officials used palm branches to make shade for voters waiting in temperatures that surpassed 100 degrees.

Voting was extended for four hours because of long lines. A strong turnout was believed likely to benefit both Moin and Rafsanjani, 70, who served as president from 1989-97 and later became a top adviser to the theocracy.

“Fight the enemy by casting a vote,” said Khamenei – head of the non-elected Islamic theocracy whose near-absolute power can override both the president and parliament.

After polls closed, Interior Ministry spokesman Johanbakhsh Khanjani announced turnout in some provinces had exceeded 80 percent. In others it varied between 65 and 80 percent. Turnout reached nearly 67 percent four years ago in a Khatami landslide.

All Iranians understood Khamenei’s code word for the United States and other foes of the nation’s Islamic system. A day earlier, President Bush denounced the election as a futile exercise since the clerics retain the real power – comments hard-liners in Iran said would only inspire more Iranians to vote.

But many voters appeared to draw most enthusiasm from the range of choices – a seven-candidate field spanning from Moin to hard-liners with ties to the regime’s military guardians.

Moin, 54, a former culture minister, is considered the heir of Khatami’s eight-year legacy – which permitted groundbreaking social freedoms such as dating and wide-open Internet access, but failed to chip away at the ruling clerics’ power. Moin has promised to name Khatami’s brother as vice president. Khatami was prevented from running for a third term by the Iranian constitution.

Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, 44, who appealed to conservatives, is a former head of the national police and is credited with bringing more professionalism on the force.

But anti-regime activists who are disillusioned about the prospect of change in a system run by clerics urged “none of the above.” Boycott appeals had been carried on Web sites, pamphlets and satellite TV programs from the large Iranian community around Los Angeles – given the local nickname “Tehrangeles.”

“We want to show the world empty streets,” said Homa Sarshar, a journalist who works for one of the Los Angeles-based stations backing a boycott.

More than 46.7 million Iranians were eligible to vote. Security was on high alert after several recent bombings, but no violence or unrest was reported. More than 254 polling stations were set up around the world, including 36 in the United States.

Hadi Kamyab, 25, was among a few dozen people who cast ballots in the morning at the Islamic Institute of New York. “I think that by voting, by trying to share your vote with your country, it is the only way to change the direction of your country,” he said.

In Basra, Iraq, up to 12,000 Iranians were expected to cast ballots at their consulate.

At Tehran University, the leader of Friday prayers, Ayatollah Mohammad Emami Kashani, told worshippers that voting “strengthens the pillars of the ruling Islamic establishment.” Followers then joined in the common chants of “Death to America.”

In Washington, State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said regardless of the election’s outcome, the U.S. will continue to try to make sure “that Iran does not use a peaceful nuclear program to pursue development of nuclear weapons. That’s our goal.”

The United States accuses Iran of using nuclear technology as a cover to develop atomic arms. Iran denies the claims and insists it aims only for electricity-producing reactors. Iran has suspended uranium-enrichment work during ongoing talks with European envoys to seek a compromise and avoid possible U.N. sanctions.

Iran’s top security official, Hasan Rohani, told reporters Iran needs a “powerful president” to handle nuclear talks – an apparent plug for his ally Rafsanjani.

Washington broke ties with Iran after militants stormed the U.S. Embassy in 1979. Fifty-two American hostages were held 444 days.

But the real worry for the establishment is the vast pool of young Iranians. More than half of Iran’s 70 million people are under 25 years old. The expectations for greater openness and opportunities – begun by Khatami – are only expected to grow.

“They cannot make us go backward,” said 19-year-old Mohammad Reza Baradaran. “We’ve tasted a bit of freedom now.”


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