By Parisa Hafezi and Babak Dehghanpisheh
DUBAI (Reuters) – Iranians voted on Friday in a parliamentary election likely to help hardline loyalists of the supreme leader tighten their grip on power as the country faces mounting U.S. pressure over its nuclear program and growing discontent at home.
State television said voting, which began at 0430 GMT, would run for 10 hours but could be extended depending on turnout. In mid-afternoon, an Interior Ministry official told state TV that about 11 million of 58 million eligible voters had cast their ballots for candidates in the 290-member parliament.
The election is seen as a referendum on the popularity of the clerical establishment given that most moderates and leading conservative candidates were barred from running.
With thousands of potential candidates disqualified in favor of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s allies, the vote is not expected to ease Iran’s nuclear standoff with the United States or spawn a softer foreign policy.
Parliament’s power is limited, but gains by security hawks could weaken pragmatists and conservatives who support the ruling theocracy but also more economically beneficial engagement with the West, from which Tehran has been estranged since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
A rise in the number of hardliners in the assembly may also help them in the 2021 contest for president, a job with broad daily control of government. Pragmatist President Hassan Rouhani won the last two elections on promises to open Iran to the outside world.
The United States’ 2018 withdrawal from Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers, and its reimposition of sanctions, have hit Iran’s economy hard and led to widespread hardships.
A U.S. drone strike killed Iran’s most prominent military commander, Qassem Soleimani, in Iraq on Jan. 3. Iran retaliated by firing ballistic missiles at U.S. targets in Iraq, killing no one but causing brain injuries in over 100 soldiers.
Encouraging Iranians to vote, state 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 Soleimani is buried in his hometown.
Soleimani, architect of Tehran’s overseas clandestine and military operations as head of the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force, was a national hero to many Iranians. He was Iran’s most powerful figure after Khamenei.
“Each vote put into the ballot box is a missile into the heart of America,” said Amirali Hajizadeh, head of the aerospace unit of the Revolutionary Guards.
Rouhani urged Iranians to “further disappoint the enemies” by voting in large numbers.
But weariness among women and the young, who comprise a majority of voters, about high unemployment and restrictions on social freedoms looked likely to depress the turnout.
LOWER TURNOUT LOOMS
Iranians who joined large protests in November called on their leaders to focus on improving the battered economy and tackling state corruption, also urging Khamenei to step down.
“I don’t care about this election. Moderates or hardliners, they are all alike. We are getting poorer with each passing day,” university student Pouriya, 24, said by telephone from the city of Isfahan. “I am leaving Iran soon. There are no jobs, no future for us.”
Iranian authorities forecast a turnout of about 50%, compared to 62% and 66% respectively in the 2016 and 2012 votes.
Iranians contacted by Reuters in several cities by telephone said turnout was low.
“In my area in central Tehran not many people are voting. There is one polling station just beside my house in Javadiyeh and only a handful of voters were there when I last checked an hour ago,” said sports teacher Amirhossein, 28.
With Iran facing deepening isolation on the global stage and discontent at home over economic privations, analysts described the election as a litmus test of the leaders’ handling of the political and economic crises.
Health ministry authorities advised voters not to be concerned about the threat of new coronavirus cases, as Tehran confirmed 13 new ones on Friday, two of whom have died.
The slate of hardline candidates is dominated by acolytes of Khamenei, including former members of the Guards, who answer directly to the supreme leader, and their affiliated Basij militia, insiders and analysts say.
Former Guards commander Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf tops the parliamentary list of the main hardline coalition for Tehran’s 30 seats in the assembly.
Khamenei was the first to cast his ballot, saying voting is “a religious duty”.
The Guardian Council removed 6,850 moderates and leading conservatives from the field, citing various grounds for the rejections including “corruption and being unfaithful to Islam”.
That left voters with a choice mostly between hardline and low-key conservative candidates. On Thursday, the U.S. Treasury Department imposed sanctions on members of the Council over the candidate bans.
Iran’s rulers have faced a legitimacy crisis since last year when protests over a fuel price hike turned political with demonstrators calling for “regime change”. The unrest was met with the bloodiest crackdown since the Islamic Revolution, with hundreds of protesters killed.
Many Iranians are also angry over the shooting-down of a Ukrainian passenger plane in error in January that killed all 176 people on board, mainly Iranians. After days of denials, Tehran said the Guards were to blame.
(Additional reporting by Babak Dehghanpisheh; Writing by Parisa Hafezi; Editing by Michael Georgy and Mark Heinrich)