Iranians voted Friday in a presidential election in which ultraconservative cleric Ebrahim Raisi is seen as all but certain to coast to victory after all serious rivals were barred from running.
After a lacklustre campaign, turnout was expected to plummet to a new low in a country exhausted by a punishing regime of US economic sanctions that has dashed hopes for a brighter future.
The supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, cast the first vote in Tehran and then urged Iran's nearly 60 million eligible voters to follow suit before the scheduled close of polls at midnight (1930 GMT).
"The sooner you perform this task and duty, the better," the 81-year-old Khamenei said, stressing that voting "serves to build the future" of the Iranian people.
But enthusiasm has been dampened by the disqualification of many hopefuls from the race and the deep economic malaise which has sparked spiralling inflation and job losses, the crisis deepened by the Covid pandemic.
"I'm not a politician, I don't know anything about politics," said Tehran car mechanic Nasrollah. "I have no money. All families are now facing economic problems.
"How can we vote for these people who did this to us? It's not right."
Iranian opposition groups abroad and some dissidents at home have urged a boycott of the vote they see as an engineered victory for Raisi, the 60-year-old head of the judiciary, to cement ultraconservative control.
Others queued to vote at schools, mosques and community centres, some carrying Iran's green, white and red national flag.
One conservative mother wearing the black full-body chador came with her two young sons dressed in the camouflage uniforms of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
A nurse named Sahebiyan said she supports Raisi for his pledge to fight corruption and because she hopes he will "move the country forward... and save the people from economic, cultural and social deprivation".
- Dashed hopes-
Iran has often pointed to voter participation for democratic legitimacy -- but polls signal the turnout may drop below the 43 percent of last year's parliamentary election.
Results are expected around noon (0730 GMT) Saturday. If no clear winner emerges, a runoff will be held a week later.
Election placards are relatively sparse in Tehran, dominated by those showing the austere face of frontrunner Raisi, in his trademark black turban and clerical robe, who has been named in Iranian media as a possible successor to Khamenei.
For the exiled Iranian opposition and rights groups, his 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.
The election winner will take over in August as Iran's eighth president from Hassan Rouhani, a moderate who has served the maximum of two consecutive four-year-terms allowed under the constitution.
After casting his vote, Rouhani told the public that "elections are important no matter what, and despite these problems we must go and vote". He acknowledged he would have liked to see "more people present" at the polling stations.
Ultimate political power in Iran, since its 1979 revolution toppled the US-backed monarchy, rests with the supreme leader. But the president, 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 agreed to limit its nuclear programme in return for sanctions relief.
But high hopes for greater prosperity 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.
- Heavyweights barred-
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.
Despite this, there is broad agreement among all the election candidates that Iran must seek an end to the painful US sanctions in ongoing talks in Vienna.
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 those disqualified were conservative former parliament speaker Ali Larijani and populist ex-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Then, two days before the election, three approved candidates dropped out of the race.
The only reformist still running is low-profile former central bank chief Abdolnaser Hemmati, who has promised to revive the economy but is widely blamed for the runaway inflation.
"For the first time since the foundation of the Islamic republic, the election of the president will take place without any real competition," wrote former French ambassador Michel Duclos for Paris think-tank the Institut Montaigne.
Tehran blacksmith Abolfazl, aged in his 60s, told AFP of his disappointment as a patriot who had joined the 1979 revolution.
"I took part in a revolution to choose for myself, not so others can choose for me," he said. "I love my country, but I do not accept these candidates."