DUBAI • Iranians voted yesterday in a parliamentary election likely to help hardline loyalists of the supreme leader tighten their grip on power as the country faces mounting US pressure over its nuclear programme and growing discontent at home.
With thousands of potential candidates disqualified in favour of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's allies, the vote is not expected to ease the country's nuclear stand-off with the United States or lead to a softer foreign policy.
The 290-member Parliament's power is limited, but gains by security hawks could weaken pragmatists and conservatives who back the ruling theocracy but support more engagement with the outside world.
More hardline seats in the assembly may also help them in the 2021 contest for president, a job with wide day-to-day control of government. President Hassan Rouhani, from the pragmatist faction, won the last two elections on promises to open Iran to the outside world.
Washington's 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 US drone strike killed Iran's most prominent military commander, Major-General Qassem Soleimani, at Baghdad airport on Jan 3. Iran retaliated by attacking US targets in Iraq with ballistic missiles, killing no one but causing brain injuries in more than 100 soldiers.
Encouraging Iranians to vote, State TV showed 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 Maj-Gen Soleimani is buried in his hometown. The architect of Teheran's overseas clandestine and military operations, as head of the Revolutionary Guards' Quds Force, was a national hero to many Iranians.
"Each vote put into the ballot box is a missile into the heart of America," said Mr Amirali Hajizadeh, head of the aerospace unit of the Revolutionary Guards.
Mr Rouhani urged Iranians to demonstrate "victory" by voting in large numbers. "Our enemies will be further disappointed by the high turnout," he said after voting.
Turnout is seen as a critical test of the popularity of the clerical establishment. Many Iranians who took part in large protests in November demanded that their leaders focus on the economy and tackling corruption.
The Iranian authorities predicted a turnout of about 50 per cent, compared with 62 per cent and 66 per cent, respectively, in the 2016 and 2012 votes.
Analysts have described the election as a litmus test of Mr Khamenei's handling of the political and economic crises.
The Guardian Council removed 6,850 moderates and leading conservatives from the field, permitting voters a choice mostly between hardline and low-key conservative candidates loyal to Mr Khamenei.