TEHRAN, Iran – Iranians voted Friday in presidential elections following a wild and Western-style campaign that featured street rallies and ultra-polished ads highlighting both Iran's fast-moving social changes and how much the crucial election remains up for grabs.
The stakes are high in the balloting because of Tehran's negotiations with the West over its nuclear program and its role as a patron of the Shiite Muslim (search) majority in neighboring Iraq.
"This is more than just who will be president," said Saeed Hajjarian (search), a top adviser to outgoing President Mohammad Khatami, who was prevented from running for a third term by the Iranian constitution. "This is how Iran will proceed in a very delicate time for this region."
None of the seven candidates was expected to gain 50 percent of the vote Friday, which would force a presidential run-off between the two top vote-getters for the first time in Iran's history.
The narrow passageways of Tehran's covered bazaar demonstrated the wide-open quality to the race. Posters for every candidate hang from the brick domes or market stalls — breaking a long tradition of bazaar merchants rallying behind one candidate.
"Iran is changing. We have our choices and we're thinking independently," said Abbas Partovi (search), whose shop sells colorful scarves that many young women now wear instead of the dark veils that became mandatory after the Islamic revolution of 1979.
The changes were obvious during the final hours of the official campaign period. Political rallies turned into street parties with dancing to Iranian rock and American rap — acts that could have meant arrest just a few years ago.
The Bush administration called the election illegitimate.
President Bush (search), in a statement released by the White House, said the election was designed to keep power in the hands of a few.
"The Iranian people deserve a genuinely democratic system in which elections are honest — and in which their leaders answer to them instead of the other way around," he said.
Iranian Police, meanwhile, watched the street rallies but did not intervene — even as the celebrations passed the midnight Wednesday deadline for campaigning.
Candidates also broke the mold. They gave out free Internet access cards and posted campaign ads on Web blogs.
The polls offer three directions: to try to rejuvenate Khatami's crippled reforms, to reassert the influence of conservatives or to restore a powerful insider — Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani (search) — to the presidency.
Even a campaign manager for 70-year-old Rafsanjani — the apparent front-runner — expected a run-off a week later. Mohammad Atrianfar told The Associated Press forecasts show Rafsanjani receiving about 45 percent of Friday's vote.
Iran has no official polling system, but national media portray Rafsanjani as the candidate to beat. Having served as president in 1989-97, he is one of Iran's best known statesmen and the patriarch of a family business empire.
The next tier was widely seen as race between Mostafa Moin (search), a Khatami protege, and Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, a police official who appeals to conservatives. But they shared one trait: seeking to become the first non-cleric president since 1981.
Moin, 54, a former minister of culture and higher education, has pledged to give new life to Khatami's drive to weaken the control of the ruling clerics.
But Moin, the leading reformist candidate, could be hurt by an election boycott led by students who are disillusioned about the prospect of change in a system run by clerics. Riot police dispersed about 500 pro-boycott demonstrators in Tehran on Thursday, arresting at least five protesters.
Qalibaf, a 44-year-old former national police chief, was credited with helping shed the force's hard-line image.
Some other candidates — particularly Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the mayor of Tehran — have credible bases of support.
A barrage of final-hour television ads included some as slickly produced as any U.S. political pitch. It was light-years from the days when the standard political clip was a candidate reading the Quran, Islam's holy book.
Rafsanjani's parting shot on TV was a 30-minute profile that tried to convey a populist touch: the candidate discussing his shoe size, endorsing unrestricted media and consulting with his wife. He also played the role of steady helmsman. Iran, he said, can sleep well with him in charge.
In Washington, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Iran was choking off political freedom.
Thousands of would-be candidates, and all women, were arbitrarily barred from running, Rice said at a news conference.
"I can't see how one considers that, quote, a legitimate election," Rice said.
Rafsanjani says he is best for Iran's nuclear talks and dialogue with the United States. Washington claims Iran is secretly pursuing an arms program. Iran says its nuclear projects are only for generating electricity.
Moin's supporters insist that something more important is at stake: the freedom introduced since Khatami took office in 1997. Then, conservatives had free rein to crackdown on everything from TV satellite dishes to the Islamic dress for women. Now, many Iranians are hard-wired to the outside world and the women's coverings continue to shrink.
"We hear the marching of the hard-liners getting stronger. Vote Moin," read a mobile phone text message sent by his supporters.
Security was expected to be high Friday following a series of recent bombings, including those that killed eight people Sunday in the southwestern city of Ahvaz. Two others died in explosions in Tehran the same day.