Reg_200221 Iran vote-1582286707612
An Iranian voter wears a mask and shows his ID during parliamentary elections at the Shah Abdul Azim shrine on the southern outskirts of Tehran on February 21, 2020. Iran's health ministry today reported two more deaths among 13 new cases of coronavirus in Iran, bringing the total number of deaths to four and infections to 18. Image Credit: AFP

TEHRAN: Iranians were voting for a new parliament on Friday, with turnout seen as a key measure of support for Iran’s leadership as sanctions weigh on the economy and US pressure isolates the country diplomatically.

The disqualification of more than 7,000 potential candidates, most of them reformists and moderates, raised the possibility of lower-than-usual turnout. Among those disqualified were 90 sitting members of parliament who had wanted to run for re-election.

Also looming over the election is the threat of the new coronavirus and many voters headed to the polls with face masks.

Iranian health authorities yesterday confirmed two new deaths from the virus, which first emerged in China in December, bringing the total death toll in Iran to four, from among 18 confirmed cases. The first two patients that died were elderly citizens in the city of Qom. Concerns over the spread of the virus prompted authorities in Iran to close all schools and Shiite seminaries in Qom.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei cast his ballot at a mosque near his Tehran office shortly after polls opened at 8am and urged Iranians to the polls.

“Anyone who cares about Iran’s national interests should participate in the election,” he said. Earlier in the week, Khamenei said high voter turnout will thwart “plots and plans” by Americans and supporters of Israel against Iran.

“Enemies want to see what the results of the US maximum pressure are,” he said, referring to US sanctions and pressure from Washington that have strangled Iran’s ability to sell its oil abroad, forcing its economy into recession.

After the disqualifications, around 7,000 candidates were left vying for a place in the 290-seat chamber across 208 constituencies.

After casting his ballot, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani called on the nation to stage another “victory” by massive voting. “Our enemies will be disappointed more than before,” Rouhani said.

On the eve of the vote, the Trump administration ratcheted up its campaign of pressure on Iran by imposing sanctions on two senior officials of the Guardian Council, the body of clerics and judges that decides which candidates may run in elections. The US also sanctioned three members of Iran’s elections supervisory committee, saying all those targeted were responsible for silencing the voice of the Iranian people by rejecting thousands of people from running.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo criticised the election as a “sham” and a vote that “is not free or fair”.

The parliament in Iran does not have power to dictate major policies, but it does debate the annual budget and the possible impeachment of ministers. Power in Iran ultimately rests with Khamenei, who has final say on all key matters.

Local TV stations broadcast images from Qom, around 130km south of Tehran, showing women and men, some wearing face masks for protection, lining up in separate lines to vote.

The current parliament, elected in 2016, had more than 100 reformists and moderates, with the rest of the chamber split between independents and hardliners. Some 90 current lawmakers were also barred from running in Friday’s election.

Nearly 58 million Iranians, out of a population of more than 80 million, are eligible to vote.