(CNSNews.com) - Iran has dismissed criticism about the validity of its presidential elections this week, saying voters would "shame" the United States with a huge turnout.
How many voters take part is symbolically important: Clerics have declared that a high turnout on Friday will signal "death to America," while some opposition groups called for a boycott after a decision by the unelected Council of Guardians to disqualify around one thousand would-be candidates - including many "reformists" as well as 89 female hopefuls.
The retort about "shaming" the U.S. came from foreign ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi Sunday, after the U.S. joined other critics who have called the fairness of the election into question.
"There are questions about an election where it's the mullahs, the unelected few, who are really the ones that make the decision about who can actually run," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Friday.
The election has Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former president described variously as a "hardliner" a "pragmatist" and a "conservative" (in the Islamic context) running against "reformist" former education minister Mostafa Moin and six other candidates.
The latest opinion poll, published on Saturday by the official IRNA news agency, put Rafsanjani comfortably in the lead with 27.1 percent, followed by Moin with 18.9 percent and former national police chief Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf with 16.5.
Failure to achieve at least 50 percent at the ballot box will necessitate a second round runoff, for the first time in the 26 years since the Islamic revolution replaced the government of the U.S.-backed shah.
New York-based Human Rights Watch said on Friday the forthcoming election was neither free nor fair.
"Iranians cannot vote for candidates who represent alternative viewpoints from those of the ruling elite," said Joe Stork of the group's Middle East Division.
He noted that all eight candidates permitted by the Council of Guardians to run -- even the supposed reformists -- were present or former government officials.
The council, comprising 12 appointed clerics and jurists, had interpreted Iran's electoral laws "to exclude all women as well as all candidates whose views are critical of the current leadership," the group said.
It urged Tehran to end discrimination against aspiring candidates based on gender, religious belief or political opinion.
Voting in America
Asefi, the foreign ministry spokesman, said polling would take place in several foreign countries, including the United States, France, Germany and the United Arab Emirates. He voiced the hope that Iranians abroad would participate in large numbers.
An Iranian opposition group charges that voting stations to be set up in the United States for absentee voters would be "illegal."
Tehran and Washington have no diplomatic relations, and Iranian government officials' movements inside the U.S. are restricted.
But Iranian election regulations reportedly require government officials to monitor ballot boxes, calling into question the legality of having Iranians voting anywhere other than in New York City - where Iranian diplomats are based at the U.N. - and in Washington, where Iran has an interests section at the Pakistani Embassy.
The Student Movement Coordinating Committee for Democracy in Iran (SMCCDI) said Iranian electoral authorities have already named cities in more than 20 American states where ballot boxes will be based.
Judging from what happened during the last Iranian election, in 2001, it said, some of the makeshift voting stations would likely be located in hotels "where certain regime's operatives have reserved meeting rooms under false pretences." Others would be set up in cultural or religious facilities linked in some way to Tehran.
The SMCCDI appealed to the U.S. authorities not to allow American soil to be used for what it called a "farce."
The group, which says it represents secularist students inside and outside Iran and has a contact address in Texas, also called on Iranians to boycott the election.
Opposition groups appear divided over whether to boycott the election or support Moin, who was initially disqualified by the Council of Guardians in a decision reversed by the "supreme ruler," Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Reza Pahlavi, the exiled son of the late shah, has called for an election boycott, as has Akbar Ganji, a dissident writer who has been in and out of prison, and in a letter from jail urged Iranians not to vote, to demonstrate their rejection of the system.
Moin's supporters say a boycott would be counterproductive and strengthen "hardliners," whose supporters would turn out to vote in large numbers.
According to Mohsen Sazegara, a visiting fellow at The Washington Institute, Iran's elections will have little impact on who exercises political power.
"The president, to be elected June 17, is not a particularly powerful figure in the Iranian system," Sazegara wrote recently. "Iran's true political power rests ultimately in the hands of the supreme leader, who is now Ayatollah Ali Khamenei."
Khamenei, he said, is not answerable to anyone. He is elected by an "assembly of experts" which in practical terms is unable to dismiss him because the assembly is peopled by individuals who are vetted by the Council of Guardians, and the council, in turn, is appointed by Khamenei.
In last year's legislative elections, turnout was only 50 percent. That election, too, was marked by the Council of Guardians' decision to disqualify more than 2,000 candidates.
Meanwhile, a weekend rally by several hundred women outside Tehran University protesting against the regime's discrimination against women was dispersed by police. Iranian dissident websites said it was the first public display of protest by women since the 1979 revolution.
See related stories:
Iran Blames US-Backed Groups for Pre-Election Bombings (June 13, 2005)
Boycott Iran's Sham Election, Urges Son of Ex-Shah (June 03, 2005)
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