Iranians turn out in large numbers for closely watched vote

Vote counting is expected to start in the Islamic Republic of Iran after polls closed in a presidential election that saw four candidates, including incumbent Hassan Rouhani, competing for the post.

"It's over, Rouhani is the victor", the source said.

With nearly all votes counted, Rouhani looked to have an insurmountable lead with 22.8 million votes compared to 15.5 million for his hardline challenger Ebrahim Raisi, election committee chief Ali Asghar Ahmadi announced on state television.

Over 40 million people voted in Friday's presidential election, with a total of 56 million people in Iran being eligible to vote.

Rouhani's opponent Raisi, a protege of Khamenei, had united the conservative faction and had been tipped in Iranian media as a potential successor for the 77-year-old supreme leader who has been in power since 1989.

Now, having stoked his supporters' yearning for change, he faces the harder task of satisfying them without bringing a backlash from the conservatives who still control most of the levers of power.

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Iran's Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was among the first to cast his ballot and urged others to do the same.

Whoever wins will be faced with a more confrontational Trump, who has described the 2015 Iran nuclear deal as a "disaster" and imposed new punishments over the country's missile program on the eve of balloting.

"The last two decades of presidential elections have been short days of euphoria followed by long years of disillusionment", said Karim Sadjadpour, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment who focuses on Iran. "He kept the shadow of war far from our country".

As Rouhani appeared close to victory, some female drivers held out the V for victory sign and flashed their vehicle lights on highways in Tehran's affluent north.

The re-elected president will also have to navigate a tricky relationship with Washington, which appears at best ambivalent about the nuclear accord reached by former US president Barack Obama.

But Iran's economy has not recovered as fast as Rouhani promised, sparking criticism of his government from conservatives close to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. "Rouhani gave everything to the USA outright" in the nuclear deal.

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"I didn't vote four years ago but I just voted so that Ebrahim Raisi would not win", said Azar Araste, sitting under the shade of a tree outside a polling place in northwest Tehran.

The two other candidates left in the race, Mostafa Mirsalim, a former culture minister, and Mostafa Hashemitaba, a pro-reform figure who previously ran for president in 2001, respectively have 478,000 and 215,000 votes each.

The 5th Islamic City and Village Council Elections were also held across Tehran on Friday. President Donald Trump's tougher stance on Iran has stoked concern as well, though his administration this week took a key step toward preserving the Obama-era nuclear deal.

For ordinary Iranians, the election presents a stark choice between competing visions of the country. No woman has been approved to run for president.

Rouhani has come to embody more liberal and reform-minded Iranians' hopes for greater freedoms and openness at home, and better relations with the outside world.

Lines at several major polling stations across Tehran spilled into the streets until late in the evening, prompting the Interior Ministry to extend voting hours three times. "My understanding is that something good is happening there, and I want to be a force in that direction".

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Rouhani has been unable to secure the release of reformist leaders from house arrest, and media are barred from publishing the words or images of his reformist predecessor Khatami.

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