Iran's supreme leader urged Iranians to vote in large numbers as the country held parliamentary elections Friday, saying a high turnout would send a strong message to the enemies of the nation in the nuclear standoff with the West.
The balloting for the 290-member parliament is the first major voting since the disputed re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in June 2009 and the mass protests and crackdowns that followed.
It is unlikely to change Iran's course over major policies -- including its controversial nuclear program -- regardless of who wins, but it may shape the political landscape for a successor to Ahmadinejad in 2013.
And with the opposition effectively crushed, the elections amount to a popularity contest between conservative supporters of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and their rivals who back Ahmadinejad.
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, especially now that the "Iranian nation is at a more sensitive period" amid the confrontation with the West.
"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 in Tehran early Friday.
"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."
A high turnout will be seen as a major boost for Iran's ruling Islamic system, showing popular support and allowing it to stand firm in its refusal to halt uranium enrichment. The West suspects Iran's program is geared toward making nuclear weapons, a charge Tehran denies, insisting it's for peaceful purposes only, such as energy production.