Millions of Iranians voted late into the night Friday to decide whether incumbent President Hassan Rouhani deserves another four years in office after securing a landmark nuclear deal, or if the sluggish economy demands a new hard-line leader who could return the country to a more confrontational path with the West.
About 55 million people are eligible to vote in Iran, where the voting age is 18.
The 56-year-old Raisi is said to be trusted by the country's most senior figure, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who as the holder of ultimate political, military, and religious power in Iran can easily derail a campaign or thwart the plans of a president.
Rouhani was a key architect of the 2015 nuclear deal with the U.S., the European Union and other partners.
"Rouhani has turned our foreign policies into a mess and damaged our religion", said Sedigheh Davoodabadi, a 59-year-old housewife in Iran's holy city of Qom who voted for Raisi.
The president in Iran must be known among men of religion and politics, and also have good experience in management.
Iran's political system combines conservative clerical oversight and state control over large parts of the economy with tightly regulated but still hotly contested elections for key government posts.
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The incumbent, relative moderate Hassan Rohani, and a conservative former prosecutor, Ebrahim Raisi, are widely regarded as the presidential front-runners in the clerically dominated Islamic country of around 81 million people, which is laboring under high unemployment and struggling to seize economic opportunities overseas.
A CNN crew in a north Tehran, where there are a lot of moderate Rouhani supporters, saw long lines all day at one polling station, with some people waiting up to three hours to vote despite the scorching heat. Raisi has even been discussed as a possible successor to him, though Khamenei has stopped short of endorsing anyone. Iran's president is subordinate but still powerful, with considerable influence over both domestic policy and foreign affairs.
Mr. Rouhani does not offer genuine democratic change and thus lacks the popular support garnered by 2009 candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi or former president Mohammad Khatami. "We're not opposed, but do not crowd out other people".
US President Donald Trump (who calls the treaty "one of the worst deals ever signed") is not alone in seeing it as a failure.
"Four years was not enough for the things he said he wanted to do", she said.
Should Raisi win, Iran is expected to retreat from the kind of nascent worldwide engagement seen during Rouhani's first term, with a focus on growing its economy internally rather than looking for direct foreign investment.
Ahmad Majidyar, who leads the IranObserved Project at the Middle East Institute, believes that "many reformists are dismayed by the President's unwillingness to stand up to the country's judiciary and security establishment", meaning many may simply not bother to vote at all. Indirectly, Ghalibaf suggests the nuclear deal with the West was a kind of Qajar-era concession.
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In the 1980s he helped sentence thousands of political prisoners to death.
"This is a polarised election - a race between powerful unelected centres of power and the rest of the country", said analyst Hamid Farahvashian. Raisi accused Rouhani of "economic elitism, mismanagement, yielding to Western pressure, and corruption".
Unemployment remains high - although it fell during Rouhani's first term - and growth is middling. According to Iranian law, the president is second in command after the Leader. "Now my colleagues can travel to France and the United States", she said. "The numbers are looking better. but the voters aren't feeling it".
"His defeat would be a double edge sword for his ambition to succeed the current supreme leader: the election would raise his profile and broaden his support-base, but it would be a setback - albeit not a fatal one, as popularity is not the most determining factor for ascending to the pinnacle of power in the Islamic republic", Vaez told RFE/RL via e-mail.
Iranian Presidential candidate Ebrahim Raisi gestures during a campaign meeting at the Mosala mosque in Tehran, Iran, May 16, 2017.
"We all want to show that we want to have freedom".
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