TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iran's supreme leader told voters it was their patriotic duty to cast ballots in parliamentary elections Friday to send a message of national unity during a "sensitive period" in the showdown with the West over Tehran's nuclear program.
The results for the 290-seat parliament, expected Saturday, will have no direct influence over Iran's nuclear program or other critical affairs, such as military or oil policies. But the new parliament is expected to boost the voices of hard-liners and give Iran's leadership a stronger hand in shaping the bigger election next year: picking a successor to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The voting across Iran — from the chilly shores of the Caspian Sea to the warm Gulf — also highlighted the devastated state of reformists and political opposition groups after nearly three years of nonstop crackdowns. Only a handful of liberal-leaning candidates were among more than 3,440 parliament hopefuls — all vetted by Iran's ruling Islamic system — and none had links to the Green Movement that led protests after Ahmadinejad's disputed re-election in June 2009.
That left the main drama of the elections as a contest between various conservative factions, which have lost the coalescing force of the opposition and now are battling among themselves. The main divide is over Ahmadinejad, who faced punishing measures after daring to challenge the near-total authority of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei last year.
Some ultraconservative blocs in the parliament races seek to show fealty to Khamenei and further slap Ahmadinejad. Ahmadinejad's allies hope to give him a political rebound and a chance — although diminishing — of having a protege as his successor. The Ahmadinejad foes appeared to have the upper hand in the final weeks of the campaign.
Khamenei, who has final say on all state matters in Iran, said it was a "duty and a right" for every eligible Iranian to vote. He described Iran as moving into "a more sensitive period" in its confrontations with the West.
On Monday, U.S. President Barack Obama is scheduled to hold White House talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Israel has been outspoken about possible military options against Iran's nuclear program, which the West and others fear could eventually lead to atomic weapons development. Iran says it seeks reactors only for energy and medical research.
The U.S. has urged allies to give time for Iran to feel the full weight of sanctions, which now target its ability to conduct international banking and sell oil.
In an interview with The Atlantic magazine published Friday, Obama warned that a premature military strike might inadvertently help Iran. "At a time when there is not a lot of sympathy for Iran and its only real ally (Syria) is on the ropes, do we want a distraction in which suddenly Iran can portray itself as a victim?" he asked.
In Tehran, Khamenei made no direct reference to Iran's nuclear program, but clearly had the showdowns in mind as he appealed for a high voter turnout.
"Because of the controversies over Iran and increased verbal threats ... the more people come to the polling stations, the better for the country," Khamenei said after casting his ballot.
"The higher the turnout, the better for the future, prestige and security of our country," he added. "The vote always carries a message for our friends and our enemies."
Iranian state TV went live from several polling stations in Tehran and the provinces, showing long lines of people waiting to vote, followed by a commentary saying it was "disappointment to the bad-wishers." Groups of foreign journalists were allowed in to cover the election, with some TV crews taken by bus to visit polling stations.
State TV claimed the U.S. and its allies were hoping for a low turnout that would show divisions and a weakened Islamic theocracy, making it easier for the West to pressure Iran over the nuclear issue. The TV headlines proclaimed the elections as a day of "national solidarity" and a "rebirth of the nation."
Iran's interior ministry said voting was extended for three hours past the scheduled 6 p.m. (1430 GMT) deadline, state TV reported in a possible sign of high turnout. The TV also showed Hasan Khomeini, grandson of the late founder of Islamic Republic in 1979, casting his vote. He has close ties with reformers.
More than 48 million Iranians are eligible to vote at the nearly 47,000 polling stations across the nation. In 2008 and 2004, turnout for parliamentary elections were 57 percent and 51 percent, respectively. The semiofficial Fars news agency predicted turnout this year of more than 65 percent.
Ahmadinejad has made few public comments about the elections — perhaps because of his lightning rod status in Iran's internal political feuds. His sister, Parvin Ahmadinejad, is running for a seat in Garmsar, about 35 miles (60 kilometers) southeast of Tehran. She is currently a member of Tehran municipal council.
The splits over Ahmadinejad began last year after he dared to challenge Khamenei over the choice of intelligence chief and other policies. The ruling clerics answered back by arresting or purging dozens of Ahmadinejad's political allies.
Mohsen Rezaei, a conservative rival of Ahmadinejad's in the 2009 presidential elections, predicted that "no one will have a majority" in the next parliament.
Former president Hashemi Rafsanjani, also a Ahmadinejad rival, said — in an apparent allusion to accusations of vote tampering in 2009 — that a "good parliament" will emerge if the ballots are properly counted.
"God willing, the outcome of the elections will be what the people want," he said.