Iran votes in presidential election with few choices

Iranians have started voting for a new president following the death of Ebrahim Raisi in a helicopter crash, choosing from a tightly controlled group of four candidates loyal to the supreme leader, at a time of growing public frustration.

The election on Friday coincides with escalating regional tension due to war between Israel and Iranian allies Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon, as well as increased Western pressure on Iran over its fast-advancing nuclear program.

While the election is unlikely to bring a major shift in the Islamic Republic's policies, its outcome could influence the succession to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's 85-year-old supreme leader, in power since 1989.

Khamenei called for a high turnout to offset a legitimacy crisis fuelled by public discontent over economic hardship and curbs on political and social freedom.

"The durability, strength, dignity and reputation of the Islamic Republic depend on the presence of people," Khamenei told state television after casting his vote.

"High turnout is a definite necessity."

Voter turnout has plunged over the past four years, as a mostly youthful population chafes at political and social curbs.

Manual counting of ballots means the final result is expected to be announced in two days, though initial figures might come out sooner.

The election will go to a run-off vote if no candidate wins at least 50 per cent plus one vote from all ballots cast.

Three candidates are hardliners and one is a low-profile comparative moderate, backed by a reformist faction that has largely been sidelined in Iran in recent years.

Critics of Iran's clerical rule say the low and declining turnout of recent elections shows the system's legitimacy has eroded.

Just 48 per cent of voters took part in the 2021 election that brought Raisi to power, and turnout hit a record low of 41 per cent in a parliamentary election three months ago.

The next president is not expected to usher in any major policy shift on Iran's nuclear program or support for militia groups across the Middle East, since Khamenei calls all the shots on top state matters.

However, the president runs the government day-to-day and can influence the tone of Iran's foreign and domestic policy.

A hardline watchdog body made up of six clerics and six jurists aligned with Khamenei vets candidates.

It approved just six from an initial pool of 80. Two hardline candidates subsequently dropped out.

Prominent among the remaining hardliners are Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, parliament Speaker and former commander of the powerful Revolutionary Guards, and Saeed Jalili, a former nuclear negotiator who served for four years in Khamenei's office.

The sole comparative moderate, Massoud Pezeshkian, is faithful to Iran's theocratic rule, but advocates detente with the West, economic reform, social liberalisation and political pluralism.

All four candidates have vowed to revive the flagging economy, beset by mismanagement, state corruption and sanctions reimposed since 2018 after the United States ditched Tehran's 2015 nuclear pact with six world powers.