Iranians voted Friday in a presidential election marked by a low turnout and a lack of formidable rivals to the candidacy of Iran's ultraconservative judiciary chief Ebrahim Raisi.
The supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, cast the first ballot in Tehran and then urged Iran's almost 60 million eligible voters to follow suit before polls are set to close at midnight (1930 GMT).
"Each vote counts. come and vote and choose your president. this is important for the future of your country", Khamenei said after casting his vote.
As night fell Friday, turnout appeared far lower than in Iran's last presidential election in 2017.
The victor will take over in August as Iran's eighth president from incumbent Hassan Rouhani, a moderate who has served the maximum of two consecutive four-year-terms allowed under the constitution. Among them are a top judge, Ebrahim Raisi; the Central Bank chief, Abdolnaser Hemmati; a lawmaker, Sayyid Ghazizadeh, and Mohsen Rezaee, the head of Iran's Expediency Discernment Council.
Khamenei on Wednesday urged Iranians to turn out and vote, but record numbers of people are expected to boycott the polls due to anger over worsening economic hardship and frustration with hardline rule.
Out of an initial field of nearly 600 hopefuls for the presidency, only seven - all men - were approved to run by the Guardian Council, a body of 12 clerics and jurists.
If elected, Raisi would be the first serving Iranian president sanctioned by the USA government even before entering office over his involvement in the mass execution of political prisoners in 1988, as well as his time as the head of Iran's internationally criticized judiciary - one of the world's top executioners. All the approved presidential candidates backed his decision to engage in indirect talks with the U.S.in Vienna in recent months in the hope of reaching a deal for an easing of USA sanctions on the Iranian economy.
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"Khamenei does not want dissent from the presidential office, especially not now that he faces unprecedented challenges", said Javedanfar. As supreme leader, Khamenei has final say on all matters of state and oversees its defense and atomic program. "How would this conform to being a republic or Islamic?"
"If we do not vote: Sanctions will be heavier, the United States and Israel will be encouraged to attack Iran", the leaflet warned.
State television showed long queues outside polling stations in several cities. Poll workers wore gloves and masks, and some wiped down ballot boxes with disinfectants.
The disqualifications affected reformists and those backing Rouhani, whose administration both reached the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers and saw it disintegrate three years later with then-President Donald Trump's unilateral withdrawal of America from the accord.
Khamenei hopes a victorious Raisi will help clean up some of the systemic corruption in Iran's power structures, said Prague-based Iranian journalist Behnam Gholipour, speaking to VOA Persian.
Whoever wins will likely serve two four-year terms and thus could be at the helm at what could be one of the most crucial moments for the country in decades - the death of the 82-year-old Khamenei.
Already, speculation has mounted that Raisi may be a contender for the position, as well as Khamenei's son, Mojtaba, who is believed to have close ties to Iran's paramilitary Revolutionary Guard.