Voting, governance and clerical power in Iran

Iranian Presidential candidate Ebrahim Raisi and Tehran Mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf gesture during a campaign meeting at the Mosalla mosque in Tehran

Iranian Presidential candidate Ebrahim Raisi and Tehran Mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf gesture during a campaign meeting at the Mosalla mosque in Tehran

The presidential race has since narrowed to a two-horse race as other candidates either pulled out or backed Rouhani or Raisi. Two other candidates are also on the ballot - conservative Mostafa Mirsalim and reformist Mostafa Hashemitaba - though they are not expected to win more than a few percent of the vote. Raisi has focused his campaign on the economy, visiting rural areas and villages and promising housing, jobs and more welfare benefits, a message which could resonate with millions of poor voters angry at the Tehran elite.

Millions of Iranians joined long queues to vote on Friday, an early sign of strong turnout in an unexpectedly tight presidential election that could determine the future of the country's nascent emergence from global isolation. "The country's fate is determined by the people", he added.

Polls close at 18:00 (1330 GMT), but voting hours will most likely be extended as the country has seen in previous elections, amid expectations of a high turnout.

Iranian voters queue at a polling station for the presidential and municipal council election in Tehran, Iran, Friday, May 19, 2017.

Any Iranian 18 or older can vote in Friday's election.

The Guards hope that a win for Raisi will give them an opportunity to claw back economic and political power lost in Shi'ite Iran's complex theocratic and republican governing structure since 2015, when Iran struck a nuclear deal with world powers that brought it out of worldwide isolation. Rouhani remains the favorite of analysts as every Iranian president since Khamenei himself took the presidency in 1981 has won re-election.

Rouhani, a 68-year-old cleric, has tried to frame the election as a choice between greater civil liberties and "extremism", and unofficial polls still put him ahead. Opposition websites have said Green Movement leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mahdi Karroubi both have endorsed Rouhani against Raisi. "Instead of using the capable hands of our youths to resolve problems, they are putting our economy in the hands of foreigners", Raisi said at a final rally in the holy city of Mashhad on Wednesday.

Rouhani responded by calling on voters to keep hardliners away from Iran's delicate diplomatic levers.

Mr Rouhani has appealed to voters to prevent the leadership going to a hardliner, saying: "One wrong decision by the president can mean war and a correct decision can mean peace".

The election comes at a tense moment in Iran's relations with the United States.

Trump will be in Saudi Arabia, Iran's regional rival, as votes are tallied.

Rouhani, a cleric, says his moderate administration needs to continue its work to implement the nuclear deal.

Rouhani has vowed to work towards the removal of remaining USA sanctions that are stifling trade and investment deals with Europe and Asia, but he is unlikely to receive much assistance from Trump.

Although nuclear-related sanctions were lifted because of the deal, other US and other worldwide sanctions remain in effect.

Meanwhile, Rouhani says he needs more time to rebuild the economy, which was shattered by years of sanctions and mismanagement when he took over in 2013.

Oil sales have rebounded since the nuclear deal took effect in January previous year, but growth in the rest of the economy has been limited, leaving unemployment at 12.5 percent overall, and nearly 30 percent for young people. Raisi also has promised monthly cash payments to the poor, a populist move that's been popular with Iranian voters in the past.

Six presidential candidates were approved by the Guardian Council, an influential clerical body controlled by conservatives, but two of them dropped out earlier this week.

Unemployment, meanwhile, remains stuck in the double digits, with almost a third of Iranian youth out of work, according to the International Monetary Fund.

"For a number of people, for an important section of is about respect, it is about human rights, it is about security and stability".