Ayatollah Ali Khamenei hits back at US claim of sham presidential vote in Iran
Supreme leader asks Iranians to cast ballots in presidential poll to discredit American claims
Millions of Iranians voted to choose a new president yesterday, urged by Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to turn out in force to discredit suggestions by arch foe the US that the election would be a sham.
The 50 million eligible voters had a choice between six candidates to replace incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but none is seen as challenging the Islamic Republic's 34-year-old system of clerical rule.
No nationwide turnout figures were available, but the interior ministry reported a "rush of voters" and said polling stations would remain open for two hours longer than plenned.
The first presidential poll since a disputed 2009 contest led to months of unrest is unlikely to change rocky ties between the West and the Opec nation of 75 million, but it may bring a softening of the antagonistic style favoured by Ahmadinejad.
World powers in talks with Iran over its nuclear programme are looking for any signs of a recalibration of its negotiating stance after eight years of intransigence under the current president.
Voting in the capital Tehran, Khamenei derided Western misgivings about the credibility of the vote, such as comments by US Secretary of State John Kerry who criticised the disqualification of candidates.
"I recently heard that someone at the US National Security Council said 'we do not accept this election in Iran'," he said. "We don't give a damn.''
All the remaining contenders except current chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili have criticised the conduct of diplomacy that has left Iran increasingly isolated and under painful economic sanctions.
After casting his vote, Jalili said: "Everyone should respect the name that comes out of the ballot boxes and the person people choose."
The Guardians Council, a state body that vets all candidates, barred several hopefuls, notably ex-president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, one of the Islamic Republic's founding fathers seen as sympathetic to reform, and Ahmadinejad's close ally Esfandiar Rahim Mashaie.
This narrowing of the field prompted concerns of a low turnout, which the supreme leader sought to counter.
"What is important is that everyone takes part," Khamenei said. "Our dear nation should come [to vote] with excitement and liveliness, and know that the destiny of the country is in their hands and the happiness of the country depends on them."
Of five conservative candidates professing unwavering obedience to Khamenei, only three are thought to stand any chance of winning the vote, or making it through to a second round run-off in a week's time.
Jalili is seen as the main conservative contender. The other two, Tehran mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf and former foreign minister Al Akbar Velayati, have pledged never to stop pursuing Iran's nuclear programme. They face Rohani, the only moderate and cleric in the race.