TEHRAN, Iran – Political veteran Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani (search) will face Tehran's hard-line mayor in Iran's first runoff presidential election ever next week, officials said Saturday.
The contest, scheduled for next Friday offers distinct choices. Rafsanjani, 70, is a moderate who served as president from 1989-97. His rival, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, 49, is untested as a national political figure and has the backing of Iran's ruling clerics and their military guardians.
Rafsanjani, a pragmatist considered the favorite throughout the campaign, got 6.1 million votes cast Friday, or 21 percent, while Tehran's conservative mayor, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad (search), took 5.7 million votes, or 19.48 percent, according to final results.
Friday's voting drew a turnout of 62.7 percent in a resounding rejection of a youth-led boycott — with lines of voters forcing polling stations into four hours overtime. Iran's hard-line leaders crowed that President Bush helped fuel the turnout by sharply criticizing the elections as undemocratic and angering many Iranians.
Ahmedinejad's second-place finish was a surprise after a lackluster performance of reformist Mostafa Moin, who had been considered Rafsanjani's main rival in the nation's tightest presidential election since the 1979 Iranian Revolution.
The 49-year-old mayor reportedly had the support of Iran's most hard-line factions, including the Revolutionary Guards.
Former Parliament speaker Mahdi Karroubi (search), who was popular in rural areas and won 19.3 percent of the vote, accused the guards and their civilian vigilante wings of intimidating voters and appealed for an investigation.
Karroubi is a close ally of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who heads the non-elected theocracy that can overrule the president or parliament.
Iran has 46.7 million eligible voters, including millions of them living overseas.
Iranian-Americans trickled to polling places across the United States Friday, while protesters urged voters to boycott the polls, saying that regardless of who wins, the election only legitimizes a system in which Khamenei has the final word on every important issue.
During the campaign, Rafsanjani — who was president between 1989 and 1997 — portrayed himself as a steady hand at the helm, able to navigate Iran through the treacherous days ahead, fraught with uncertainty over the nuclear program, relations with the United States and neighboring Iraq.
The reformist Moin, a former culture minister, was among the lowest vote-getters, along with Bagher Qalibaf (search), a former head of the national police.
The other candidates were Ali Larijani, the former head of Iran's state radio and television, and former provincial governor Mohsen Mehralizadeh.
Outgoing President Mohammad Khatami was prevented from seeking a third term by the Iranian constitution.
A day before the election, Bush sharply denounced the vote, saying it was designed to keep power in the hands of the clerics. But some Iranians said they were motivated to vote to retaliate against Bush's denunciations.
"I picked Ahmadinejad to slap America in the face," said Mahdi Mirmalek after attending Friday prayers at Tehran University.
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 with the common chant of "Death to America!"
The United States accuses Iran of using nuclear technology as a cover to develop atomic arms. Iran insists it aims only for electricity-producing reactors. Iran has suspended uranium-enrichment work during ongoing talks with European envoys.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said Friday that 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."
Iran and the United States have had no diplomatic ties since 1979 when Iranian militants stormed the U.S. Embassy and kept 52 Americans hostage for 444 days.