RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
In Syria's ally Iran, people are voting for president today. It is Iran's first presidential election since the stunning vote in 2009. Back then, a surprisingly early declaration of victory for President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sparked a wave of protests, followed by years of government repression. This time around, six candidates are contending for power amid widespread skepticism about the election, and intensive security on the streets.
MORNING EDITION's Steve Inskeep has been reporting from Iran. He's on the line with us from the capital, Tehran. Good morning, Steve.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
MONTAGNE: So we should remember that this is a vote for president, but Iran also has a cleric who is that country's supreme leader. I understand you saw him vote today.
INSKEEP: Well, it was a ceremony before the media - much like when presidential candidates vote in the United States except in this case, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was voting for a man who would, in effect, be Khamenei's subordinate. The voting happened in his office complex. Khamenei emerged from behind a curtain. He was wearing a black turban, black robes. He signed his name in a book - using his left hand, by the way. His right was injured in an assassination attempt many years ago. And then he walked over with a smile on his bearded face, and dropped his ballot into the box.
MONTAGNE: But hasn't Khamenei framed this election as an effort to confront the United States?
INSKEEP: Oh, he has. He has repeatedly called for a big turnout and said that would signal Iran's defiance of outside powers, which has complicated things, by the way, for some Iranians who'd actually rather vote for a candidate who wants to negotiate with the United States. And Khamenei made a statement about the United States when he voted this morning. He said he'd heard that some American officials are criticizing Iran's presidential candidates. And to his American critics, Khamenei said, a Farsi expression - (foreign language spoken) - and we're told it can be translated as: the hell with you.
MONTAGNE: Well, you said, though, Iranian voters - some, at least - want to negotiate with the U.S. and what would they want to be negotiating about? Iran's nuclear program?
INSKEEP: That's a vital issue here. The United States is pressuring Iran over its nuclear program. And what concerns Iranians are U.S.-led sanctions, which have played a big role in devastating Iran's economy. Now, of the six candidates who are still in the race today, there is one - Hasan Rowhani - who's considered moderate and has most clearly called for better relations with the outside world. He seeks to be here what political consultants in the United States would call the candidate of change. And in fact when we interviewed voters at Tehran polling places this morning, one of them used that same word.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Through translator) Change.
INSKEEP: Change. What do you want to change?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Through translator) Everything. Either economy...
INSKEEP: The economy and foreign affairs, OK.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Political.
INSKEEP: The politics of the country.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Yes. Everything, everything.
INSKEEP: We should mention that other candidates are more conservative than Rowhani, this guy who's positioning himself as the candidate of change. But several candidates have actually said the problem with the United States could be negotiated more effectively than it has been. There's only one - Said Jalili - who, by the way, is Iran's current nuclear negotiator, who's urging full-throated resistance to the United States. And he does have many, many supporters in Iran who want to take a conservative approach in both politics and in social issues.
MONTAGNE: You're talking to a lot of people in polling places there in Tehran, the capital. But what is happening in the rest of the country? Are you able to know that?
INSKEEP: It's difficult to know. It may emerge over time, but very little right now. We have to mention that international journalists have mostly been confined to Tehran and the surrounding area. We've had relatively limited movement. We're in a particular hotel. At one point we actually checked out of the hotel, made a reservation elsewhere, but by the time we got there, the hotel was mysteriously booked. On another occasion, we had permission to travel to the city of Isfahan but our permission to travel was suddenly revoked without explanation. Now, governments try to hide things. Often when they do, they unintentionally reveal things at the same time. And in this case, Isfahan, the city that we wanted to go to, is a city where there were protests recently where people were chanting death to the dictator. So what we can say is that it's a very unpredictable situation in Iran.
MONTAGNE: Well, over these last few days we've heard you speak to people, some of whom seem to be speaking freely. How freely can people speak there?
INSKEEP: Oh. Well, this is a season when people are able to get away with more than at other times. There's a tremendous amount of fear in Iran at all times - and even now - but election time is a time when people speak up.
MONTAGNE: Steve, thanks very much.
INSKEEP: Delighted to do it, Renee.
MONTAGNE: That is, of course, MORNING EDITION's Steve Inskeep, who is speaking to us from Tehran, where people are voting today for president.
You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.