Iranians have begun voting in a presidential contest which pits President Hassan Rouhani against a serious challenger, Seyyed Ebrahim Raeisi, in what is believed to be a close race.  

Some 63,500 polling stations opened at 08:00 local time (0330 GMT) for long lines which had already formed around the country where more than 56 million are eligible to vote.Polls close at 18:00 (1330 GMT), but voting hours will most likely be extended. 

Leader of the Islamic Revolutioninfo-icon Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei was among the first to cast his ballot, calling on Iranians to turn out in big numbers.Speaking after casting his vote, the Leader said, "I thank God Almighty for the blessing of democracy and people's participation in the election. This is a great blessing.""Praise be to God, our people are thankful for this blessing. You see they are participating and my advice is that more and more people participate and come to the polls at the earliest time possible."

Ayatollah Khamenei described the 2017 electionsinfo-icon as very important, saying the destiny of the country is in the hand of the masses. "I believe a good work should be done in early hours and should not be delayed. I also believe the presidential election is very important," the Leader said."The destiny of the county is in the hands of the people who choose the chief executive. They should heed the importance of this task," Ayatollah Khamanei added. 

Besides picking a president, Iranians inside the country are also voting to choose members of the country's City and Village Councils."The City and Village Councils Election is also important as it elects those who are in charge of urban and rural services, namely the everyday issues involving the people," the Leader added.

This year's presidential race features four presidential candidates, namely incumbent Hassan Rouhani, who is running for a second term, Seyyed Ebrahim Raeisi, former deputy judiciary chief, member of Iraninfo-icon's Expediency Council Mostafa Aqa-Mirsalim and former vice president, Mostafa Hashemi-Taba.

However, Rouhani and Raeisi are viewed as the viable contenders after two candidates from a field of six, Tehraninfo-icon Mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf and Vice President Is'haq Jahangiri, dropped out in the final days of campaigning.

Rouhani has been campaigning on the platform of an active foreign policyinfo-icon meant to enhance international relations.Raeisi has also vowed a strong economic management towards the elimination of poverty and unemployment.

The first vote was cast by an Iranian researcher at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealandinfo-icon's capital. The voting began in Wellington, as well as the country's cities of Aukland, Christchurch and Dunedin at 09:30 a.m. local time (02:00 a.m. in Tehran, 2130 GMT).

The Iranians based in the country were, therefore, the first ones to cast their ballots in the election.In line with the event's timeframe, the lranians based in the Americas will be the last ones participating in the polls. 

Based on Iran's election law, if no candidate manages to secure over 50 percent of the votes, a runoff will take place a week later.Weeks of heated campaigning came to an end on Thursday morning, 24 hours before the start of the elections.

Ayatollah Khamenei has called on Iranians to turn out en masse, saying the nation and Islamic establishment are the true winners of the vote no matter which candidate emerges victorious.