TEHRAN, Iran - Iranians voted Friday in a high-stakes election shaping up as the closest presidential race since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, with young people disillusioned by the theocracy calling for a boycott of the balloting.
None of the seven candidates is expected to get the 50 percent support needed to win outright, meaning the two top vote-getters will likely meet in a runoff election.
Reformers won the past two presidential votes in landslides - but their supporters have been alienated after hard-liners blocked outgoing President Mohammad Khatami's attempts at change. Some reformers called for a boycott of the vote, convinced change can't come through the ballot box.
That has thrown the race wide open, with Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, who was president from 1989-97, seen as the front-runner. A pragmatist, he claims support among both reformers and conservatives.
Second place would appear to be a contest between reformist Mostafa Moin and a former police chief, Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, 44, who appeals to conservatives. But they share one trait: seeking to become the first non-cleric president since Mohammad Ali Rajai was assassinated in 1981.
Moin's supporters have been campaigning hard for the young to ignore the boycott calls and turn out in large numbers.
Iranian state television showed long lines outside polling stations, but there was no independent indication of the turnout among the 46.7 million eligible voters.
Nagi Hassani, a 49-year-old shopkeeper from western Tehran, wasn't taking any chances. He arrived one hour before polls opened. He waved his birth certificate at an Associated Press reporter outside a station in western Tehran, saying: "I want to be the first one to vote."
Iran's leadership, meanwhile, bristled at sharp criticism the day before from President Bush, who called the elections undemocratic and designed to keep clerics in power.
Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, urged voters to flood the polling stations to silence critics.
"They don't want an Islam to have a real democratic system," said Khamenei, who directs the non-elected theocracy whose powers dwarf both the presidency and parliament.
Intelligence Minister Ali Yunesi said the vote would be a lesson in democracy for its Middle East neighbors. "Bush's comments will only make our people more stubborn to vote in big numbers," he said.
As Friday prayers ended at Tehran University, an elderly devotee shouted anti-American slogans and promised to vote for one of the most conservative candidates, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a little-known figure until he was chosen by hard-liners as Tehran mayor last year.
"I will vote for Ahmadinejad because he is the one committed to fighting corruption. And I'm voting because my vote will be a slap in the face of America," Mahdi Mirmalek said adding a "Death to America" slogan as he walked away.
The hard-line vote, however, will likely be split among three candidates: Qalibaf, Ahmadinejad and former radio and television chief Ali Larijani.
Khatami told a news conference that he hoped for a high voter turnout, to strengthen stability and democracy.
"I hope the next president will come with development in mind," he said.
His brother, Mohammed Reza Khatami, predicted that Moin, a 54-year-old former culture minister, would win if the voter turnout surpassed 60 percent. Moin has said he will make Khatami's brother his vice president if he wins.
The outcome carries added significance since the next president will influence Iran's negotiations with the West over its nuclear program, and its role as a patron of the Shiite Muslim majority in neighboring Iraq.
Rafsanjani has portrayed himself as the most experienced figure to handle the sensitive nuclear talks. Washington claims Iran seeks nuclear arms, but Iran say the program is only for energy production.
"I hope we have a fair election, free of manipulation," Rafsanjani said.
Rafsanjani is expected to receive about 45 percent of the vote, short of the mark needed to claim victory, according to campaign manager Mohammed Atrianfar.
Soaring temperatures that hovered around 105 degrees in some parts of Iran had local authorities moving lines of the elderly voters indoors. There were some 41,000 polling stations around Iran, as well as 254 polling stations in other countries - including three in neighboring Iraq and 36 in the United States - where millions of expatriate Iranians can vote.
Polls opened at 9 a.m. and were scheduled to close at 7 p.m., but voting hours have been extended in the past.
"This is more than just who will be president," said Saeed Hajjarian, a top adviser to outgoing President Khatami. "This is how Iran will proceed in a very delicate time for this region."
Security forces were on high alert in Iran, but there were no immediate reports of unrest or violence. On Sunday, eight people in the southwestern oil city of Ahvaz were killed in a bombing claimed by previously unknown pro-Arab group. Two others died in explosions in Tehran the same day.