Iran began casting ballots in a presidential election

Iranians began casting ballots Friday in a tightly contested presidential election, with opinion polls showing former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani likely headed towards a runoff against either a reformist candidate or a conservative allied with the country's powerful Shiite hierarchy.

Seven candidates are vying to succeed President &to=http:// ' target=_blank>Mohammed Khatami, a reform-minded cleric barred from seeking a third term.

Though Khatami was elected by landslides in 1997 and 2001, many of his initiatives were blocked by clerical hard-liners who hold vast power under Iran's Islamic system of government.

With high unemployment and a sense of deep social dissatisfaction -- particularly among young people and women -- even conservative candidates talked the language of democracy and reform during the campaign, tells CNN News.

According to the Washington Post, public opinion surveys showed that &to=http:// ' target=_blank>Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a cleric, millionaire businessman and longtime fixture in Iran's theocratic establishment, remained the favorite.

The Rafsanjani campaign, which has promoted a sense of inevitable ascent, has been buoyed by the former two-term president's reputation for managerial savvy and familiarity with the government's highest echelons.

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