DUBAI (REUTERS) - Iranians began voting on Friday (Feb 21) in a parliamentary election likely to help religious rulers 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 hardliners loyal to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the vote is not expected to influence the country’s fraught relationship with the United States.
Even though Parliament does not wield significant power, 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.
Washington’s withdrawal in 2018 from Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers, and its reimposition of crippling sanctions, have hurt pragmatists who supported the pact.
Tensions between Iran and the US have increased dramatically since an American drone strike killed the country’s most prominent military commander Qassem Soleimani at the Baghdad airport on Jan 3.
Iran retaliated on Jan 8 by attacking US targets in Iraq with domestically built ballistic missiles, killing no one but causing brain injuries in more than 100 soldiers.
State television said voting is set to run for 10 hours, with about 58 million Iranians eligible to vote for the representatives in the 290-member Parliament.
The US Treasury Department has imposed sanctions on the members of the Guardian Council and its Elections Supervision Committee over the candidate bans.
On Friday, Iran’s election vetting body spokesman said he was honoured to be blacklisted by the US, according to state news agency IRIB.
Mr Khamenei was the first to cast his vote.
"Voting is a religious duty... which will also guarantee the national interests of Iran," he said after he voted, broadcast live on state TV. "I am urging Iranians to vote early."
With Iran facing growing isolation on the global stage and discontent at home over economic hardships, analysts have said the election was a referendum on the leaders’ handling of political and economic crises.
For Mr Khamenei, a big turnout would signal to arch-foe Washington that Iran is unbowed by sanctions and the killing of General Soleimani.
The Guardian Council has ensured hardliners dominate the field, removing 6,850 moderates and leading conservatives and permitting voters a choice mostly between hardline and low-key conservative candidates loyal to Mr Khamenei.
The authorities have been under pressure since last year when protests over a fuel price hike were met with the bloodiest crackdown since the 1979 Islamic revolution, killing hundreds.
But reformers have failed to capitalise on the unrest.
State TV showed people waiting to vote in polling stations across the country.
"Each vote put into the ballot box, is a missile into the heart of America," said Mr Amirali Hajizadeh, head of aerospace unit of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards.