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May 26, 2017

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Iran votes in first presidential election since nuclear deal

TEHRAN — Iranians voted Friday in the country's first presidential election since its nuclear deal with world powers, as incumbent Hassan Rouhani faced a staunch challenge from a hard-line opponent over his outreach to the West.

The election is largely viewed as a referendum on the 68-year-old cleric's more moderate policies, which paved the way for the nuclear accord despite opposition from hard-liners.

Economic issues also will be on the minds of Iran's over 56 million eligible voters as they head to more than 63,000 polling places across the country. The average Iranian has yet to see the benefits of the deal, which saw Iran limit its contested nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of some sanctions.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the most powerful man in Iran, symbolically cast the election's first vote and called on Iranians to turn out in huge numbers for the poll.

"Elections are very important and the fate of the country is in the hands of all people," he said.

Associated Press journalists in Tehran, whose liberal and affluent voters form the bedrock of support for Rouhani, found lines at some precincts much longer than those seen in his 2013 win. Analysts have suggested a high turnout will aid Rouhani in securing a second four-year term.

"I am happy I could vote for Rouhani," said Zohreh Amini, a 21-year-old woman studying painting at Tehran Azad University. "He kept the shadow of war far from our country."

After casting his ballot, Rouhani said whomever the voters elect as president should receive all of the nation's support.

"Any candidate who is elected should be helped to accomplish this heavy responsibility," Rouhani said. "Anyone who is elected must be helped from tomorrow with unity, happiness and joy."

Rouhani has history on his side in the election. No incumbent president has failed to win re-election since 1981, when Khamenei became president himself.

That doesn't mean it will be easy, however. Rouhani faces three challengers, the strongest among them hard-line cleric Ebrahim Raisi, 56.

Raisi, a law professor and former prosecutor who heads an influential religious charitable foundation with vast business holdings, is seen by many as close to Khamenei. Raisi has even been discussed as a possible successor to him, though Khamenei has stopped short of endorsing anyone.

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