TEHRAN (Dispatches) -- Iranians voted in the country’s first general elections since the U.S. imposed sanctions following the pullout from the 2015 nuclear deal.
Principlists loyal to the country’s revolutionary ideals are expected to sweep the elections at a time of mounting U.S. threats which saw the United States assassinate the Middle East’s most prominent anti-terror commander General Qassem Soleimani last month.
Voting, which began at 0430 GMT, was extended by two hours until 1630 GMT because of a "rush of voters”. In mid-afternoon, an Interior Ministry official said that about 11 million of 58 million eligible voters had voted for candidates in the 290-member parliament.
National TV aired footage of people lined up at polling stations set up mainly at mosques.
"I am here to vote. It is my duty to follow martyr Soleimani’s path,” said a young voter at a mosque at a cemetery, where General Soleimani is buried in his hometown in Kerman.
General Soleimani is a national hero to almost all Iranians.
Leader of the Islamic Revolution Ayatollah Seyyed Khamenei was the first to cast his ballot, saying voting is "a religious duty”.
"These elections mark a day of national celebration and I have to congratulate all my fellow countrymen across the country on this occasion,” the Leader said.
"Secondly, the day of elections is the day of the fulfillment of the civil rights of the people which seek to vote and participate in determining the future of the country, as they are entitled to,” the Leader said.
"Thirdly, it is a religious obligation and the truth is that it is elections which guarantee the national interests of the country and anyone who is interested in the national interests of the country should vote,” Ayatollah Khamenei said.
The Leader urged voters to turn out early in the day and to vote based on the number of total competing candidates in any given city.
Ayatollah Khamenei concluded his remarks by praying for the country and also thanking the media for covering the event.
President Hassan Rouhani urged Iranians to "further disappoint the enemies” by voting in large numbers.
In Tehran, which accounts for 30 seats in parliament, the principlist candidates were headed by Muhammad Baqer Qalibaf, a former mayor of the capital.
The voting came a day after the U.S. imposed sanctions on five senior members of Iran’s Guardian Council which is responsible for supervising the electoral process in the country.
U.S. special representative for Iran Brian Hook - who announced the measures Thursday - accused the officials of preventing free and fair elections.
On Friday, Guardian Council spokesman Abbas Ali Kadkhodaei slammed the sanctions as "sham and illegitimate” measures demonstrating the United States’ disregard for democracy.
He added that the U.S. in fact "desired the region’s dictatorial governments as child-killing regimes, seeing them as cows that can be milked for benefit”.
In a tweet on Thursday, Ayatollah Muhammad Yazdi, one of the sanctioned Guardian Council officials, said that it was his "highest honor” to be sanctioned by "those whose hands were stained by the blood” of General Soleimani.
Secretary of Iran’s Guardian Council Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati mockingly quipped at the sanctions, saying that they demonstrated the "mind paralysis” of those which have imposed them on the Guardian Council members.
"Yes, they sanctioned us and I am now thinking what to do with all the money we have left in the U.S. We also can’t go to the U.S. for Christmas celebrations any longer,” Ayatollah Jannati told reporters, who laughed in response.
The voting comes after a one-week election campaign, which officially kicked off last Thursday.
More than 7,000 candidates competed to enter the parliament. A winning candidate must have at least 20 percent of the votes cast in their constituency in order to become lawmaker for a four-year term.