/ 15 March 2008

Iran counts votes as US decries results

Iran began counting votes on Saturday that are likely to keep conservatives in control of Parliament after many opponents of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad were blocked from standing in the election.

A conservative-dominated Assembly could still be critical of Ahmadinejad as politicians manoeuvre before next year’s presidential race and home in on his economic policies blamed for rising inflation, the biggest gripe for ordinary Iranians.

The United States, at loggerheads with Iran over its nuclear programme, said any result was ”cooked” because of a vetting process barring many pro-reform candidates.

But Iran said turnout in Friday’s vote, put by one official at more than 60% of Iran’s 44-million eligible voters, defied Western critics of the Islamic Republic.

Interior Minister Mostafa Pourmohammadi said some results would be announced on Saturday, but it could take longer in Tehran where 30 of the Assembly’s 290 seats were fought.

Some anti-Ahmadinejad politicians said their informal exit polls suggested the United Front, the most pro-government group of candidates, was doing well in Tehran, where conservatives hold 26 of the capital’s seats in the outgoing Assembly.

”The conservatives are closer to the goals of the Islamic revolution and the supreme leader,” said Ali Rahbarkhah, a young cleric in Qom, Iran’s centre of Shi’ite Muslim learning.

Open support

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s top authority who usually stays above the political fray, effectively endorsed Ahmadinejad in remarks published just before the vote. Iranians should consider ”voting for those who can pave the way for the current government”, Khamenei said.

One senior reformist politician said: ”It was the first time that the supreme leader openly and publicly gave his support to a political group, and people respect the leader.”

Reformists seeking political and social change had aimed to capitalise on public discontent about inflation, now at 19%.

”Not only will I not vote, I will stop others from voting. The price rises are driving me mad,” said shopkeeper Jalal Fasihi when asked if he would join last-minute voters at a polling station in Tehran when voting was extended for five hours.

But the Guardian Council, a body of clerics and jurists, barred many reformists when it screened hopefuls on criteria such as commitment to Islam and the clerical system.

Conservatives pride themselves on upholding Islamic revolutionary ideals.

”In essence the results are cooked … in the sense that the Iranian people were not able to vote for a full range of people,” US State Department spokesperson Sean McCormack said.

Washington has led efforts to isolate Iran because it fears Tehran is seeking to build nuclear weapons. Tehran denies this.

Reformists, and even some conservatives, have criticised Ahmadinejad for triggering three rounds of United Nations sanctions because of his fiery speeches that have riled the West. Khamenei has backed Ahmadinejad’s handling of the nuclear file. — Reuters