Iranians head back to the polls again Friday for a runoff election to choose a new president.
Last week's election failed to produce a clear-cut winner, and the upcoming runoff vote is seen as a crucial one for Iran.
It was Iran's closest election since the 1979 revolution. Former president and moderate conservative Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was the favorite heading into the election and received the most votes. But few expected the strong second place finish by an obscure local politician.
Wayne White, a senior analyst at the Middle East Institute says even seasoned observers were caught off guard. "I think what happened was a lot of reformers stayed home."
The boycott by reformers turned Tehran Mayor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad into a solid contender, garnering 19.5 percent of the votes compared to Mr. Rafsanjani's 21 percent.
Mr. White says little is known about Mr. Ahmadinejad besides his hard-line stance and his new found populist appeal. "He's the son of a blacksmith who came up from the ranks, a self-made man. He lives a very Spartan lifestyle and I think that's how he projected himself during the campaign. Rafsanjani, instead of going out and meeting people, was using a lot of glitzy posters and Western-oriented media."
But some moderate candidates blame the ruling clerics for manipulating voting results. Third place finisher Mahdi Karroubi lashed out against the country's supreme leader, accusing the clerics of using "coup-like" measures.
Three newspapers were shut down for publishing letters critical of the election, claiming Revolutionary Guard Forces loyal to the outgoing president used intimidation tactics to pressure voters. Mr. Rafsanjani's campaign has asked for a one-week delay while voting irregularities are investigated.
Speaking in Egypt, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the entire election process is illegitimate.
"In Iran, people are losing patience with an oppressive regime that denies them their liberty and their rights," said Ms. Rice. "The appearance of elections does not mask the organized cruelty of Iran's theocratic state. The Iranian people are capable of liberty, they desire liberty, and they deserve liberty."
After Saddam Hussein's ouster from Iraq, many experts believe Iran now holds the balance of power in the region. In light of growing international concern over Iran's nuclear program, Mr. White says choosing the new leader will be crucial to the people of Iran and its relations with the rest of the world. The results, he says, will signal either the continuation of social reforms already in place or a return to a more extreme and fundamentalist Iran.
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