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US: Iranians Denied Free Choice in Presidential Vote

Supporter of ex-president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani
The United States said Thursday Iranians are being denied a free choice in the country's presidential runoff election, since most candidates were eliminated by decree before the voting process began. Friday's runoff is between former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Tehran Mayor Mahmood Ahmadinejad.

The election pits Mr. Rafsanjani, a self-described reformer and advocate of closer ties with the west, against the Tehran mayor, a conservative ally of the country's ruling clerics.

But the State Department says the runoff can hardly be seen as a free election, given that the country's unelected Guardian Council ordered the vast majority of would-be candidates, including all the women, barred from contention last month.

Asked at a news briefing if the United States had a favorite in the two-man race, State Department Deputy Spokesman Adam Ereli said the U.S. preference is for the Iranian people to have a right to freely choose leaders who will lead the country on a path that will bring it into the international mainstream.

"The question of preference should be posed to the Iranian people. Who do you have a preference for? And the answer would be that they're not really being given a choice, in the sense that they're voting for two people out of a potential candidate pool of over a thousand, 99 percent of whom were eliminated from even running. So the question is not who the United States prefers. The question is who do the Iranian people prefer. And the sad answer is they're not being given a choice," said Mr. Ereli.

Mr. Rafsanjani, 70, a cleric who was president from 1988 to 1997, has said in campaign interviews that he would seek to improve Iran's troubled relationship with the United States.

The two countries have not had diplomatic relations since just after the country's 1979 Islamic revolution, and U.S. officials accuse Iran of supporting terrorism, trying to undermine Israel-Palestinian peace efforts, and secretly pursuing nuclear weapons.

As for Mr. Rafsanjani's expressed interest in better relations, officials here have dismissed it as campaign rhetoric.

They say the Bush administration will not give the comments much credence, until the time that elected leaders in Tehran make such pronouncements, and take clear action to change policies the United States finds objectionable.