Middle East

Iranians Vote for Assembly of Experts

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Iranian voters are selecting members of the Assembly of Experts, the 86 clerics who have the power to determine Iran's supreme leader. The election, which will also determine the makeup of local councils, marks the first test for President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. His political party is running candidates throughout Iran.


In Iran, today is Election Day. Iranians are voting for city and town councils across the country. And they are selecting members of the Assembly of Experts, 86 clerics who have the power to determine Iran's supreme leader, the nation's most powerful figure.

The election also marks the first test for President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose political party is running candidates throughout Iran. NPR's Mike Shuster has more from Tehran.

MIKE SHUSTER: The Hosenia Airshat Hall(ph) north Tehran was crowded with voters this morning. With separate lines for men and women winding through the beautifully towered chamber and out the doors.

For some voters like 44-year-old Manushir Mohammadi(ph), a businessman, just the act of casting a ballot is what's important about today's election.

MANUSHIR MOHAMMADI: (Through translator) To progress in a country, you need the people to say they what they want, and the voting is one of the mechanism.

SHUSTER: This is Iran's third election in three years. It follows parliamentary elections in 2004, and last year's presidential election in which liberal reformers undermined by Iran's undemocratic clerical institutions, lost control of the government to the conservatives. The reformers have been in disarray since, but they are running candidates for the powerful Tehran city council, and other town councils, on a united slate.

One of those candidates voting here today is Masoumeh Ebtekar, Iran's first female vice president in the previous reformist administration. In 1980, Ebtekar was the spokeswoman for the students who took American diplomats hostage. She's hoping for a resurgence of the reformers.

MASOUMEH EBTEKAR: I think it's very important. It's a test for democracy in Iran and that means if the people have to come into the scene, when it's time for them to vote, to choose the people that they consider to be most appropriate.

SHUSTER: This is a complex election with the names of hundreds of candidates posted on the walls of voting stations like Hosenia Airshat, but it has been a very short campaign and some voters find it too confusing. This frustrated young woman was reluctant to give her name to a Western reporter.

SIEGEL: (Through translator) Well, the assembly awaits for these elites that I choose from, though I don't which group they belong into. It was not enough time to tell us who these people are.

SHUSTER: The Assembly of Experts, the clerical body that chooses the Supreme Leader, will sit for a term of 10 years. In the past, turnout for the Assembly election is not that high. So authorities scheduled it, this time around, to coincide with a more popular city and town council elections.

The Assembly of Experts voting pits conservatives against ultra-conservatives who support President Ahmadinejad. Reformist candidate Masoumeh Ebtekar says the ultra-conservatives are a threat to democratic practices in Iraq.

EBTEKAR: It's very crucial, particularly, since we hear certain voices that do not believe in the democratic aspects of the republic as much as others like the reformists do.

SHUSTER: And so, today's election will provide the first clear indication of how popular President Ahmadinejad really is. Ahmadinejad has based his appeal on a combination of economic populism, Islamic revolutionary commitment, and tough talk against the U.S. and particularly against Israel. For some voters, such as 51-year-old physiology professor Mortazar Karinyan(ph), Ahmadinejad has accomplished nothing.

MORTAZAR KARINYAN: He has not do (unintelligible) in this last one year. He has told many things but he couldn't do anything.

SHUSTER: But across town at the al-Nabi Mosque in East Tehran, Mohammad Hamadian(ph), a 26-year-old teacher, is pleased with Ahmadinejad's performance especially his tough stance on Iran's pursuit of nuclear technology.

MOHAMMAD HAMADIAN: Internationally, Iranian people, through standing this election, send a firm message to the international community so that they will lessen the pressure on Iranian government on the atomic cause.

SHUSTER: Results of today's voting are not expected before Sunday evening.

Mike Shuster, NPR News, Tehran.

SIEGEL: Just ahead, Nintendo looks to rain in its highflying problem, and Bob Mondello's review of new film, "Dreamgirls." That's when we continue with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

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