TEHRAN — After an exuberant campaign season, voters across Iran voted today in a fiercely contested presidential election with potentially broad domestic and international repercussions.
Long lines began forming outside polling stations well before they opened, suggesting a large turnout.
Washington and capitals around the world are tensely anticipating the outcome of the vote, which pits incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad against reformist Mir-Hossein Mousavi and two other challengers. The Islamic Republic and the West are at odds over Tehran's nuclear program and support for militant groups that oppose Israel. Pro-U.S. Arab leaders have decried Iran's rising ambitions.
The next president, analysts say, will play a key role in formulating Iran's response to the Obama administration's offer of comprehensive talks after a 30-year cold war between Tehran and Washington, which is rooting for Ahmadinejad to lose.
"There's a hope that if Ahmadinejad is not reelected this might facilitate engagement with Iran, specifically on the nuclear issue," said Alireza Nader, an analyst at Rand Corp. "Ahmadinejad's rhetoric and style has an effect on U.S.-Iran engagement. Mousavi is seen as an easier candidate to deal with by certain segments of the [U.S.] foreign policy establishment."
For voters in this country of 70 million, the election has emerged as a referendum on Ahmadinejad, pitting those who support his populist economic policies and fiery international posture against those angered by his conservative social policies and his perceived damaging of Iran's relations with the West.
Rogine Behtoub, 24, a teacher, said she came to the polling station at the Hosseiniyeh Ershad mosque in north Tehran to vote against Ahmadinejad.
"I'm not coming here to vote for anyone. I'm voting against someone. I want a change in the situation. I want better relations with the outside world," Behtoub said.
But Amir Absalami, 29, a worker from the poorer southern part of Tehran, said Ahmadinejad needed more time in office.
"The things Ahmadinejad says are in tune with reality," he said. "He doesn't lie. Besides, we have to give him a chance. He's only been there four years. Now, he's being attacked by all sides."
Polling numbers are scarce and unreliable. No independent pollsters operate in Iran. Ahmadinejad supporters say he'll clobber Mousavi, his chief challenger. Mousavi's supporters say their polls show Ahmadinejad will lose by a double-digit margin.
Results will largely hinge on turnout; the Interior Ministry estimates there are 46.2 million eligible voters. The more people who vote, the better Mousavi's chances, analysts say.
The poor and pious and rural voters who favor Ahmadinejad for his populist giveaways and low-interest loan policies tend to dutifully wait in long lines at the polls. The young, educated middle-class urbanites who oppose him tend to stay home or get discouraged by the slow process.
Election officials are planning for a record turnout at home and among the Iranian diaspora, placing ballot boxes in 130 countries, including Iraq and the United States, where two dozen polling stations will be set up. Results are supposed to be announced within 24 hours after polls close, between 6 p.m. and midnight.
If Ahmadinejad is reelected, the West will look hard to see whether his government is prepared to tone down his rhetoric and enter talks over Iran's nuclear program. Some of his supporters and enemies say he has tried to readjust his policies and rhetoric, but most say that he will not budge on the nuclear issue and that negotiations will fail.
If Mousavi wins, many wonder whether supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei will give him leeway to broker a deal with the West. Khamenei wields ultimate authority over crucial matters of state, such as the nuclear program.
Regardless of the outcome, the raucous campaign has unleashed new forces into the Islamic Republic's normally staid political culture.
"Certain energies have been released and certain new patterns have emerged," said Ali Akbar Mahdi, a professor emeritus of social science at Ohio Wesleyan University and the author of five books on Iran and the Middle East. "It'll be interesting to see how it will evolve after the election, or how it will be suppressed."
Ahmadinejad broke new ground by publicly accusing some top clerics of corruption. That led the country's top power broker, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, to demand that Khamenei rein in Ahmadinejad or risk unrest.
Both the clashes between the titans and the colorful street displays have drawn ordinary people into debates about nuclear energy, the Arab-Israeli conflict and relations with the U.S. Even conservatives acknowledge that it will be tough to put the genie back in the bottle.
"These are signs of the growth and health of our Islamic democracy," said Mohammad Kazem Anbarlouee, editor of the pro-Ahmadinejad newspaper Resalat. "It's not who runs in an election that counts. It's who participates."
Special correspondent Ramin Mostaghim contributed to this report.