Updated at 3:39 p.m. ET
(CBS/AP) TEHRAN, Iran - 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.
CBS News correspondent Elizabeth Palmer reports that the liberal opposition's activists are deep underground, and its leaders under house arrest. No matter who wins Friday's election, the hardliners will be in charge.
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, who is in his second four-year term, the maximum under Iran's term limits.
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, President 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.
(Below, watch a preview of a "60 Minutes" segment to be broadcast Sunday on the Stuxnet virus that sabotaged the Iranian nuclear program)
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, Mr. 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."
Britain's Foreign Secretary condemned the elections were, saying the poll had been held against a backdrop of fear that meant the result would not reflect the will of the people.
"In these circumstances it is not surprising that most of Iran's reformist wing chose not to stand, reducing the elections to an internal competition among regime conservatives. As such, we do not believe the elections can be presented as reflecting the will of the people," said William Hague.
While the country's stance on Israel and nuclear progress is unlikely to change with the election, Palmer reports that Iran's economy is changing and dramatically.
U.S. and European sanctions -- designed to pressure Iran over its nuclear ambitions -- are starting to hurt Iran's residents. The prices of ground meat and tea are up 50 percent since January. The price of eggs has more than doubled. And as the Iranian currency has lost nearly half its value against the U.S. dollar, the cost of imported items -- like machinery and medicine -- is skyrocketing.
That economic crisis, Palmer reports, will only get worse as new, even tougher sanctions aimed at cutting off Iran's oil revenue are due to take effect in June.