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Iranians choosing new president


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Rafsanjani, one of the leading contenders in the poll, casts his ballot on Friday.
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Some of Iran's youth do not like the choice of candidates.
Iran's women hope for improved status and more rights.
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TEHRAN, Iran (CNN) -- Polls for Iran's tightly contested presidential election closed Friday at 11 p.m. (2:30 ET), but individuals still waiting in line were being allowed to vote, officials said.

According to the Interior Ministry, the ballots will be counted three times, and the final results are expected around 8 p.m. (11:30 a.m. ET) Saturday.

Approximately 55 percent of Iran's population turned out for Friday's tightly contested presidential election, the ministry said. About 48 million Iranians are eligible to vote.

The number is slightly lower than the percentage quoted by Iran's U.N. ambassador, Javad Zarif, who told CNN Friday that "turnout is over 60 percent," and was "better than expected."

Seven candidates are vying to succeed President Mohammed Khatami, a reform-minded cleric barred from seeking a third consecutive term. Though he was elected by landslides in 1997 and 2001, many of his initiatives were blocked by clerical hard-liners who hold vast power under Iran's Islamic system of government.

If no candidate captures a majority, the two top vote-getters will face each other in a runoff.

Surveys suggest that scenario may be likely, and that it could pit former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani against either a reformist candidate or a conservative allied with the country's powerful Shiite hierarchy.

Mostafa Moin, a reformist former education minister and Khatami protege, has said he will push measures to weaken the control of ruling clerics.

Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, a conservative former police chief, is widely seen as the favorite of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameinei.

Under Iran's system, Khameinei -- not the president -- has the last word in matters of state.

The hard-line Guardian Council screened candidates, disqualifying those it deemed unsuitable. More than 1,000 would-be candidates were barred from Friday's election by the council, including all the women who applied.

The White House released a statement Thursday from President Bush in which he said the electoral process in Iran "ignores the basic requirements of democracy."

"Iran's rulers denied more than a thousand people who put themselves forward as candidates, including popular reformers and women," Bush said. "The Iranian people deserve a genuinely democratic system in which elections are honest -- and in which their leaders answer to them instead of the other way around."

With high unemployment and a sense of deep social dissatisfaction -- particularly among young people and women -- even conservative candidates talked the language of democracy and reform during the campaign.

The election came amid negotiations with the West over Iran's nuclear program and questions over what kind of relationship Iran wants with the United States.

The two countries have not had formal diplomatic ties since Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Rafsanjani and Moin said they want to improve Iran's strained ties with the West.

In an interview with CNN Tuesday, Rafsanjani said he supports "a policy of relaxation of tension" with the United States, but that the U.S. must do its part to relinquish what he called a "hostile attitude" (See interview)

"If Americans are sincere in the cooperation, working with Iran, I think the time is right to open a new chapter in our relations with the United States," he said. "But if the United States wants to continue its obstructions and hostility, then the previous past conditions will persist."

CNN correspondents Christiane Amanpour and Chandrika Narayan contributed to this report


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