The moderate candidate in Iran's presidential election has conceded defeat to the country's hard-line judiciary chief. However, amid widespread apathy among voters, turnout is expected to be historically low. Polls will be open from 7:00 a.m. until midnight, local time.
Analysts said much of Iran's electorate appeared disenchanted with their Islamist rulers for mismanaging an economy ravaged by US sanctions, a prolonged pandemic and official corruption.
With economic misery palpable at home, Iran's rulers can not risk starting the talks from scratch after the election, as the ruling clerics are aware their political fortunes rely on tackling worsening economic hardship.
Ultimate political power in Iran, since its 1979 revolution toppled the US -backed monarchy, rests with the supreme leader.
Social media posts from inside Iran also indicated that voting was light at polling stations around the country.
But high hopes for greater prosperity were crushed in 2018 when then-US president Donald Trump withdrew from the accord and launched a "maximum pressure" sanctions campaign against Iran.
Iran's Guardian Council, the constitutional watchdog tasked with approving candidates, allowed only Raisi and six other lesser-known Khamenei loyalists to run in the election, barring hundreds of other presidential hopefuls, including several politicians who have prominent public profiles comparable to Raisi's. The disqualifications sparked a weekslong campaign by Khamenei's Iranian critics inside and outside the country to encourage a boycott of what they described as a sham election.
But a low turnout will undermine the legitimacy of the new government and the whole ruling system. "That is why the ruling system has always put emphasis on voter participation and used all possible means to bring people to the polls". More than 59 million Iranians are eligible to vote. "This stance is a big no to the Islamic republic", she said. 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.
These elections are seen by many Iranians as a brazen power grab by the hardliners who seem to have decided that they can never win free and fair elections, judging by their past performance.
Millions of Iranians voted on Friday in a contest that has been expected to hand the presidency to Raisi, a hardline judge who is subject to USA sanctions.
In 1988, Raisi was part of a four-person "death panel" that allegedly oversaw the mass execution of up to 5,000 political prisoners, according to rights groups.
The election comes at a pivotal moment for Iran. Raisi, 60, takes over from Rouhani in August as Iran seeks to salvage its tattered nuclear deal with major powers and free itself from punishing USA sanctions that have driven a sharp economic downturn.
Raisi says he backs Iran's talks with major powers to revive the nuclear deal, under which Iran agreed to curbs on its nuclear programme in return for the lifting of sanctions.
Trump said the JCPOA did not do enough to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons - a goal it denies having - or engaging in other objectionable activities.
Rezaei's concession in a post on Twitter came as Iran's outgoing President Hassan Rouhani also acknowledged the victor in the polling was "clear" though he did not immediately name Raisi as his successor.
"But because Iran's foreign policy, especially relating to the US, is the exclusive domain of Khamenei, whoever becomes the next president is likely to follow the same long-established rules", Rezaei said. "Raisi will be the next president whether we vote or not", said an Iranian journalist who asked not to be named due to security concerns. Khamenei served as Iranian president himself before being appointed supreme leader in 1989.
"Raisi being elected will justify and legitimise America's human rights sanctions against the Islamic Republic", said Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian-born expert on Iran at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya in Israel.
"If Khamenei deems Raisi a success, I think he will propose Raisi to succeed him".