TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iranians voted Friday in the country’s first election since its landmark nuclear deal with world powers, deciding whether to further empower moderates backing President Hassan Rouhani or support hard-liners long suspicious of the West.
The elections for Iran’s parliament and a powerful clerical body known as the Assembly of Experts are tightly controlled by the establishment headed by the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, which ultimately determines who can run.
But within the range allowed by the Islamic Republic, the voting may provide a referendum on Rouhani’s policies — and his promises that the nuclear deal, the lifting of most international sanctions and a greater degree of opening to the West can help boost a battered economy — a top concern for most voters.
Nearly 55 million of Iran’s 80 million people are eligible to vote. Participation figures and other statistics were not immediately available, though Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli predicted late Thursday there would be a turnout of 70 percent. Polls were scheduled to close at 6 p.m., but the Interior Ministry said it would extend voting time until 10 p.m. across most of the country and until 11 p.m. in the capital.
In Tehran, voter Hossein Gerami said he backed reformists to support Rouhani.
“The country suffered under hard-liners,” he said. “Today is the time to change Iran for the better.”
Sakineh Mamoudi, who backed hard-liners, said she worried about Western influence growing in Iran.
“I voted for those who protect the values of the revolution and oppose foreign domination of the country because I don’t want pro-West figures to get control of the parliament,” Mamoudi said.
The nuclear deal has been the centerpiece of Rouhani’s policies since he was elected in 2013 — and the sealing of the deal won Iran the lifting of most international sanctions against it. Throughout, he and the negotiating team had to push against hard-liner opposition. Supreme leader Khamenei eventually gave his consent to the final result. Now reformists want to build on that opening to the world, promising improvements in the economy.
Despite the nuclear deal, Iran and the West have a long history of enmity, fueled by the 1953 Britain and U.S.-engineered coup that installed the shah and the 1979 Islamic Revolution and takeover of the American Embassy. A billboard put up in Tehran before the election showed the face of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II replaced with that of a camel, warning voters about “foreign meddling.”
The hard-line camp is largely made up of loyalists of Rouhani’s predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who during his two terms in office avidly stoked tensions with the U.S. and cracked down on internal dissidents.
The vote is unlikely to radically change Iran, but reformists and moderates peeling away seats from hard-liners could help Rouhani push through his domestic agenda. Reformists say that about 200 of its 3,000 would-be candidates were allowed to run after the unelected Guardian Council vetted and disqualified many, often on the grounds of insufficient “loyalty” to the Islamic Republic.
That means they are unlikely to attain a majority but could still win a substantial bloc of parliament’s 290 seats with their allies. Lawmakers serve four-year terms.
Voters also picked representatives for the Assembly of Experts, an 88-seat body of clerics officially charged with selecting the replacement for the supreme leader from among its members. The assembly is elected every eight years and there is a chance its members may need to find a successor for the ayatollah, who is 76 years old and underwent prostate surgery in 2014, renewing speculation about his health.
Extending voting hours suggests a high turnout, which many believe could aid moderates and reformists.
There was no immediate independent survey of all of Iran’s 53,000 polling stations, however. Iran does not allow international election observers to monitor polls, which the Interior Ministry conduct.
On social media, Iranians shared images of filled-out ballots, inked fingers and long lines at some polling places. The voting largely appeared to move smoothly, with Iranians using their mobile phones and campaign lists to write the names of their favored candidates on the blue parliamentary and brown Assembly of Experts ballots in mosques, subway stations, schools and other polling sites.
Even Mahdi Karroubi, an opposition leader under house arrest since 2011, two years after he challenged the results of Iran’s presidential election, voted via a mobile ballot box brought to his home, Interior Ministry official Hossein Ali Amiri told the state-run IRNA news agency.
Khamenei, who has final say on all state matters, was among the first to vote in the capital, Tehran.
“Whoever likes Iran and its dignity, greatness and glory should participate in this election,” he said after casting his ballot. “We have enemies who are eyeing us greedily. Turnout in the elections should be such that our enemy will be disappointed and will lose its hope. People should be observant and vote with open eyes.”
Rouhani, himself a candidate in the Assembly of Experts election, also addressed journalists after voting, saying he expected an “epic” turnout.
“Whoever comes out of the ballot boxes, either in the parliament or the Assembly of Experts, with the votes of the people will be respected by us and everyone will respect the votes of the majority of the people,” he said.
Whatever the outcome, Iran still faces major economic challenges, like bad bank debts, high unemployment and pushing through subsidy reforms, said Cliff Kupchan, the chairman of the Eurasia Group.
The election “will either reinforce or atrophy the momentum that Rouhani has from the nuclear deal,” Kupchan said. “That momentum could affect the tectonic plates of the Iranian political system over the medium-term.”
Associated Press writer Jon Gambrell in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, contributed to this report.
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