ISFAHAN, IRAN - JUNE 02:  People ride a horse and carriage at sunset in Isfahan's Unesco-listed central square on June 2, 2014 in Isfahan, Iran. Isfahan, with its immense mosques, picturesque bridges and ancient bazaar, is a virtual living museum of Iranian traditional culture, and is Iran's top tourist destination. On June 4, Iran marks the 25th anniversary of the death of the Ayatollah Khomeini and his legacy of the Islamic Revolution. In the background of the photo is the Imam Mosque, known as the Shah Mosque before the revolution.   (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
John Moore/Getty Images Europe/Getty Images
ISFAHAN, IRAN - JUNE 02: People ride a horse and carriage at sunset in Isfahan's Unesco-listed central square on June 2, 2014 in Isfahan, Iran. Isfahan, with its immense mosques, picturesque bridges and ancient bazaar, is a virtual living museum of Iranian traditional culture, and is Iran's top tourist destination. On June 4, Iran marks the 25th anniversary of the death of the Ayatollah Khomeini and his legacy of the Islamic Revolution. In the background of the photo is the Imam Mosque, known as the Shah Mosque before the revolution. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
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Story highlights

Incumbent faced a strong challenge from conservative cleric Ebrahim Raisi

More than 40 million Iranian voters flocked to polling stations

(CNN) —  

Incumbent Hassan Rouhani leads in early vote counting in Iran’s presidential race, with a big lead over his conservative rival, Ebrahim Raisi.

Preliminary results put Rouhani ahead with 14 million votes. Raisi is second with 10 million votes.

More than 40 million Iranian voters flocked to polling stations Friday, and by Saturday morning more than 25 million votes had been counted, according to the head of Iran’s Interior Ministry State Elections Committee.

Rouhani, considered a moderate, was a key architect of the 2015 nuclear deal with the US, the EU and other partners. The election is seen, at least in part, as a referendum on that agreement, which has so far yielded mixed economic results for Iranians.

His closest opponent is conservative cleric Raisi, who has cast doubt on the benefits of the nuclear deal.

Some polling stations remained open as late as midnight local time (3:30 p.m. ET) because of high voter turnout, Iran’s Ministry of Interior said. CNN journalists in Tehran reported seeing long lines as voters apparently heeded calls for a big turnout.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was among the first to cast his ballot and urged others to do the same. “I believe that the presidential election is very important. The fate of the country is in the hands of people,” he said.

Raisi is widely seen as Khamenei’s preferred candidate – indeed, he is often mentioned as his possible successor.

Rouhani, meanwhile, is essentially running for re-election as an outsider, and is backed by Iran’s reformist camp.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani casts his vote in the 2017 election.
Louie Maliksi/CNN
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani casts his vote in the 2017 election.

For many in Iran, especially in affluent areas of the capital, Tehran, Rouhani has provided a glimpse of what many have long desired – engagement with the outside world, without the types of banking and visa restrictions, as well as economic sanctions – that left them feeling so isolated.

Reform-minded supporters recognize that Rouhani isn’t perfect – he too, after all, is also a cleric. But he’s widely seen by reformers as their best hope for change.

Iranians queue to cast their ballots in presidential elections in Tehran on May 19, 2017.
BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/AFP/Getty Images
Iranians queue to cast their ballots in presidential elections in Tehran on May 19, 2017.

A CNN crew in north Tehran, where there are a lot of moderate Rouhani supporters, saw long lines all day at one polling station, with some people waiting up to three hours to vote despite the scorching heat.

Voter Mahya Kamalvan, 26, told CNN: “We cannot complain if someone else is chosen. We have to prove that we are here, we support what we want. And then if anything happens the other way, maybe we can say something.”

Medical student Yasaman Allahgholy, 22, waits to vote in North Tehran on Friday.
Mick Krever/CNN
Medical student Yasaman Allahgholy, 22, waits to vote in North Tehran on Friday.

Another voter, 22-year-old medical student Yasaman Allahgholy, said it was her duty to vote to “make my country more free, and be more popular in the world,” and that it was important to protect the real improvements she has seen recently in Iran’s medical system.

“I am young, and I want to live in a more free country. To show what I think without fearing from being in jail or something like that,” she said.

“When we fight with other countries, when we show an angry face to other countries, our economy will decrease little by little. So it’s really important for me to participate in this election, for my future.”

“It’s the reason why I have [waited] about one hour in this line, in this hot weather.”

Conservative frontrunner

Should Raisi win, Iran is expected to retreat from the kind of nascent international engagement seen during Rouhani’s first term, with a focus on growing its economy internally rather than looking for direct foreign investment.

Raisi’s history may deter some voters – the 56-year-old cleric was a member of the so-called “Death Commission,” which presided over the summary executions of thousands of political prisoners in the summer of 1988.

But Rouhani won’t necessarily benefit.

Iranians queue to cast their votes at a polling station in Tehran.
Mick Krever/CNN
Iranians queue to cast their votes at a polling station in Tehran.

Ahmad Majidyar, who leads the IranObserved Project at the Middle East Institute, believes that “many reformists are dismayed by the President’s unwillingness to stand up to the country’s judiciary and security establishment,” meaning many may simply not bother to vote at all.

In a tight contest, a traditionally high turnout among conservatives could be enough to give Raisi victory.