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Congratulations poured in for ultraconservative Ebrahim Raisi Saturday on winning Iran's presidential election as his rivals conceded even before official results were announced.

The other three candidates in the race all congratulated him for his victory, which had been widely expected after a host of political heavyweights had been barred from running.

"I congratulate the people on their choice," said outgoing moderate President Hassan Rouhani without naming Raisi. "My official congratulations will come later, but we know who got enough votes in this election and who is elected today by the people."

The other two ultraconservative candidates — Mohsen Rezai and Amirhossein Qazizadeh Hashemi — explicitly congratulated Raisi, as did the only reformist in the race, former central bank governor Abdolnasser Hemmati.

Raisi won 62% of the votes counted so far, election office chairman Jamal Orf said later on state television as the count continued, with no turnout figures released yet.

The 60-year-old Raisi takes over from Rouhani in August as Iran seeks to salvage its tattered nuclear deal with major powers and free itself from punishing U.S. sanctions that have driven a sharp economic downturn.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei arrives to cast his ballot Friday in the country's presidential election.  | AFP-JIJI
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei arrives to cast his ballot Friday in the country’s presidential election. | AFP-JIJI

Raisi, the head of the judiciary whose black turban signifies direct descent from Islam's Prophet Mohammed, is seen as close to the 81-year-old supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has ultimate political power in Iran.

Friday's voting was extended by two hours past the original midnight deadline amid fears of a low turnout of 50% or less.

Many voters chose to stay away after the field of some 600 hopefuls including 40 women had been winnowed down to seven candidates, all men, excluding an ex-president and a former parliament speaker.

Three of the vetted candidates dropped out of the race two days before Friday's election, and two of them quickly threw their support behind Raisi.

Populist former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, one of those who were barred from running by the Guardian Council of clerics and jurists, said he would not vote, declaring in a video message that "I do not want to have a part in this sin".

On election day, pictures of often flag-waving voters dominated state TV coverage, but away from the polling stations some voiced anger at what they saw as a stage-managed election aiming to cement ultraconservative control.

"Whether I vote or not, someone has already been elected," scoffed Tehran shopkeeper Saeed Zareie. "They organize the elections for the media."

A woman casts her ballot at a polling station in Tehran on Friday during Iran's presidential election.  | AFP-JIJI
A woman casts her ballot at a polling station in Tehran on Friday during Iran’s presidential election. | AFP-JIJI

Enthusiasm was dampened further by spiraling inflation and job losses, and the pandemic that proved more deadly in Iran than anywhere else in the region, killing more than 80,000 people by the official count.

Among those who queued to vote at schools, mosques and community centers, many said they supported Raisi, who has promised to fight corruption, help the poor and build millions of apartments for low-income families.

A nurse named Sahebiyan said she backed him for his anti-graft credentials and on hopes he would "move the country forward … and save the people from economic, cultural and social deprivation."

Raisi, who holds deeply conservative views on many social issues including the role of women in public life, has been named in Iranian media as a possible successor to Khamenei.

To opposition and human rights groups, his name is linked to the mass execution of political prisoners in 1988. The U.S. government has sanctioned him over the purge, in which Raisi has denied playing a part.

Ultimate power in Iran, since its 1979 revolution toppled the U.S.-backed monarchy, rests with the supreme leader, but the president wields major influence in areas from industrial policy to foreign affairs.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei  | REUTERS
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei | REUTERS

Rouhani, 72, leaves office in August after serving the maximum two consecutive four-year-terms allowed under the constitution.

His landmark achievement was the 2015 deal with world powers under which Iran agreed to limit its nuclear program in return for sanctions relief.

But high hopes for greater prosperity were crushed in 2018 when U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew from the accord and launched a "maximum pressure" campaign against Iran.

While Iran has always denied seeking nuclear weapons, Trump charged it was still planning to build the bomb and destabilizing the Middle East through proxy groups in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen.

As old and new U.S. sanctions hit Iran, trade dried up and foreign companies bolted. The economy nosedived and spiraling prices fueled 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.

Despite this, there is broad agreement among Iran's senior political figures, including Raisi, that the country must seek an end to the U.S. sanctions in ongoing talks in Vienna aimed at rescuing the nuclear accord.

Iran President Hassan Rouhani casts his ballot in the country's presidential election at the Interior Ministry in Tehran Friday.  | IRANIAN PRESIDENCY / VIA AFP-JIJI
Iran President Hassan Rouhani casts his ballot in the country’s presidential election at the Interior Ministry in Tehran Friday. | IRANIAN PRESIDENCY / VIA AFP-JIJI

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