Iranian voters went to the polls Friday in a presidential election in which ultraconservative cleric Ebrahim Raisi is seen as all but certain to coast to victory over his vetted rivals.
After a lacklustre campaign, turnout is expected to plummet to a new low in a country exhausted by a punishing regime of US economic sanctions and the Covid-19 pandemic.
Election placards are relatively sparse in the capital Tehran, dominated by those showing the austere face of frontrunner Raisi, 60, in his trademark black turban and flowing religious robe.
Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei cast the first vote just after 7:00 am (0230 GMT) at a specially installed ballot box at a mosque adjoining his offices in the capital.
He then urged Iranian’s nearly 60 million eligible voters to follow suit, saying: “The sooner you perform this task and duty, the better. Everything that the Iranian people do today until tonight, by going to the polls and voting, serves to build their future.”
Polls close at midnight (1930 GMT), and possibly two hours later, with results expected around noon Saturday.
The winner 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.
Ultimate political power in Iran, since its 1979 revolution toppled the US-backed monarchy, rests with the supreme leader.
But the president of the Islamic republic, as the top official of the state bureaucracy, also wields significant influence in fields from industrial policy to foreign affairs.
Rouhani’s key achievement was the landmark 2015 deal with world powers under which Iran pledged to limit its nuclear programme and refrain from acquiring the atomic bomb in return for sanctions relief.
Candidates pull out
But high hopes for greater prosperity and a reopening to the world were crushed in 2018 when then-US president Donald Trump withdrew from the accord and launched an economic and diplomatic “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran.
While Iran has insisted its nuclear programme is for peaceful purposes only, Trump accused it of secretly seeking the bomb and of destabilising the wider Middle East through armed proxy groups.
As old and new US sanctions hit Iran, trade dried up and foreign companies bolted. The economy nosedived and spiralling prices fuelled repeated bouts of social unrest which were put down by security forces.
Iran’s ultraconservative camp — which deeply distrusts the United States, labelled the “Great Satan” or the “Global Arrogance” in the Islamic republic — attacked Rouhani over the failing deal.
They swept parliament early last year and now look set to claim the presidency in the nationwide poll that will also elect municipal and other officials.
Out of an initial field of almost 600 hopefuls for the presidency, only seven — all men — were approved to run by the Guardian Council, a body of 12 clerics and jurists.
Among the prominent figures disqualified were conservative former parliament speaker Ali Larijani. Then, two days before the election, three of the seven approved candidates dropped out of the race.
The only reformist still running is a technocrat, central bank chief Abdolnasser Hemmati, who has promised to revive the economy and, unusually in Iran, involved his wife in campaigning.
Reviving nuclear deal
Iran has often pointed to voter participation as proof of democratic legitimacy — but polls signal the turnout Friday may drop below the 43 percent of last year’s parliamentary election.
If no clear winner emerges, a runoff will be held a week later.
The supreme leader two days before the election urged voters to come out in droves to elect “a powerful president” — warning that “the Satanic power centres of the world” are trying to undermine the ballot.
Raisi has been named in Iranian media as a possible successor to Khamenei, who turns 82 next month.
Khamenei also served as president when he took over in 1989 from the Islamic republic’s founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
For the exiled Iranian opposition and rights groups, Raisi’s name is indelibly associated with the mass executions of leftists in 1988, when he was deputy prosecutor of Tehran’s Revolutionary Court, although he has denied involvement.
Whatever the ideological differences in Tehran, there is broad agreement that the country of 83 million must seek an end to the painful US sanctions in talks aiming to revive the nuclear deal.
US President Joe Biden has indicated a willingness to rejoin the agreement once Washington is sure Iran will respect its nuclear commitments, some of which it has walked back from in response to Trump’s campaign.
Negotiators from the US are taking part indirectly in EU-chaired discussions in Vienna involving Iran and the other partners to the accord — Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia.