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Voters Head To The Polls To Pick New President In Iran


The voting is over in Iran's presidential election to choose a successor to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The vote comes amid controversy over Iran's nuclear program, ever-tightening sanctions led by the U.S. and economic trouble. This is the first presidential election since 2009, when the disputed result sparked months of protest, followed by intense repression.

Our colleague Steve Inskeep of NPR's MORNING EDITION has been covering the election in Tehran, and he joins me now. And, Steve, this was a shrunken field of candidates, right, with some reformists not on the ballot. Who was on the ballot?

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: Well, yeah. You have half a dozen candidates who are still on the ballot at this point, and the field is narrowed by this small group of insiders and clerics, many of whom are appointed by Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. But you still do have a choice.

You still have, on one side, the people who are known, as you said, as reformists, who say they're still for Iran's Islamic Revolution. You couldn't get on the ballot if you weren't for that. But they say they want to modernize things. They want to change things. And their leading candidate, Hassan Rouhani, wants better relations with the West.

At the other extreme, you have Saeed Jalili, who is Iran's nuclear negotiator, and he is arguing for stronger resistance to what he considers American imperialism and very conservative social policies as well. And there are some gradations in between. On the whole, it's a very conservative field that got onto the ballot, but there's a choice here.

BLOCK: What was turnout like today, Steve?

INSKEEP: Oh, Melissa, it's hard to get a complete picture because, despite our best efforts, we weren't allowed out of Tehran on election day. But in the capital city, which is huge, we visited many polling places. Turnout didn't seem massive, but it grew substantially through the day, into the cool of the evening, and things at some of the polling places we visited even became rather festive, which is not a word that you would use a lot in Iran lately.

And you get a sense of the complexity of the place. A woman, who is a doctor, said she wanted moderation. We don't need another revolution. And there was an acupuncturist who also said he was a martial arts champion for Saeed Jalili, the conservative. I'm not sure that I really expected to meet such a person in Iran. But in any event, based on our unscientific survey, the acupuncturist/martial arts champion vote is going for Jalili.

BLOCK: Steve, I understand you had an especially vivid experience at one polling place that you visited today.

INSKEEP: Yeah, one that even more underlines the complexity of this place. We went to western Tehran to a polling place in a mosque in a middle-class area with a huge housing project surrounding it. And I say a mosque. That's where many, many, if not all, of the polling places are.

Turnout seemed reasonably heavy. People were happy. We met lots of voters in this location for Rouhani also. One woman had come from Germany to visit relatives and cast her ballot. But amid all this, we're intently watched by men in plainclothes. We were briefly detained by security men. They checked our papers. They let us go. They were very polite.

But there were multiple security agencies watching the same polling place. And we were stopped by another man, who made loud threats. He had a hand in a shoulder bag that appeared to contain a gun. He was calling on a radio for reinforcement, shouting at us not to leave.

In the end, I have to say the police came. They took our side. They hustled us out of there, and we never figured out to what organization this man belonged. But it's a reminder you've got competing security and intelligence services, militia-type organizations, a great deal of emotion and suspicion all coming together on this election day.

BLOCK: Hmm. Steve, I'm curious about the role of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in all this. I gather that he cast his vote very late in the day. It was seen as some sort of gesture of defiance. When you talk to people in Iran, what do they say about the outgoing president?

INSKEEP: Well, let's remember that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had a favorite candidate he wanted to run, and that man was one of the candidates who was not allowed to run in this election. Ahmadinejad was very unhappy, said that he was going to fight against that. He hasn't found any particularly public way to do that. But he was a polarizing figure for the world and is a polarizing figure in Iran.

In talking with voters everywhere we could over the past week, we found supporters of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, admirers of everything that he did. But we also found a lot of people who were sick of him, who never felt that he was legitimately elected in the first place and that he'd wrecked the economy.

BLOCK: Well, voting is over for today, Steve. When might we know a result?

INSKEEP: That is entirely unclear. The expectation is perhaps not until sometime tomorrow, Saturday. It could take a long time for all the ballots to come in. Voting went in very light tonight. But let's remember that four years ago, there was a very early call of the race for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, which was the beginning of the allegations of fraud.

BLOCK: OK. NPR's MORNING EDITION host Steve Inskeep in Tehran. Steve, thanks so much.

INSKEEP: Happy to do it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Melissa Block
As special correspondent and guest host of NPR's news programs, Melissa Block brings her signature combination of warmth and incisive reporting. Her work over the decades has earned her journalism's highest honors, and has made her one of NPR's most familiar and beloved voices.