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Khamenei protege, sole moderate neck and neck in Iran presidential race

A low-key moderate and a protege of Iran's supreme leader are neck-and-neck in the vote count in snap presidential elections marked by voter apathy over economic hardships and social restrictions.

More than 14 million votes have been counted so far from Friday's vote, of which the sole moderate candidate Massoud Pezeshkian had won over 5.9 million votes and his hardline challenger former nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili over 5.5 million, provisional results by the interior ministry showed.

Some insiders said the turnout was around 40%, lower than expected by Iran's clerical rulers, while witnesses told Reuters that polling stations in Tehran and some other cities were not crowded.

Iran's Tasnim news agency said a run-off election was "very likely" to pick the next president following the death of Ebrahim Raisi in a helicopter crash last month.

If no candidate wins at least 50% plus one vote from all ballots cast, including blank votes, a run-off between the top two candidates is held on the first Friday after the result is declared.

The election coincides with escalating regional tension due to the war between Israel and Iranian allies Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon, as well as increased Western pressure on Iran over its fast-advancing nuclear programme.

While the election is unlikely to bring a major shift in the Islamic Republic's policies, its outcome could influence the succession to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's 85-year-old supreme leader, in power since 1989.

The clerical establishment sought a high turnout to offset a legitimacy crisis fuelled by public discontent over economic hardship and curbs on political and social freedom.

The next president is not expected to usher in any major policy shift on Iran's