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On a tight leash

With the disqualification of numerous candidates by the Guardian Council, Iran's parliamentary election on February 21 is expected to strengthen the hardliner faction’s grip on power

On a tight leash

Amid deep political division and heightened tension with the United States, Iran goes to polls for its 290-member Majlis or Parliament on February 21, an exercise seen as a test of the popularity of the relatively moderate and pro-reform bloc led by President Hassan Rouhani.

It is also seen as a popularity test for the clerical establishment at a time when Iran's relations with the US are at their worst since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

The present parliament, elected in 2016, has more than 100 reformists and moderates, while the rest of the house is split between independents and conservatives.

Leading pro-reform parties have been either dismantled or banned since a presidential vote in 2009 in which hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was re-elected. His rivals have alleged that the vote was rigged.

The powerful Guardian Council, the country's constitutional watchdog that vets prospective candidates, had disqualified more than 9,000 people from out of more than 16,000 who had applied in December to enter the race citing reasons like "corruption and being unfaithful to Islam". That has left more than 7,000 candidates in the fray.

Majority of those disqualified were reformists and moderate candidates. Some hardliners and 90 current legislators were also barred from contesting the polls.

Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the final authority in the country's complex system of clerical rule and limited democracy, backed the Council decision saying the next parliament has no place for those scared of speaking out against foreign enemies.

With the disqualification of moderate and reformists, conservatives and hardline loyalists of Khamenei are likely to dominate the parliament. Observers believe there will be no competition for 158 seats.

Rouhani has criticized the exclusion of his supporters saying "people favour political pluralism in elections" and the people should be "free to choose and elect". He reminded Khamenei "nobody is above the law and the people".

Asserting that Iran's elections are the "healthiest", Khamenei has insisted that voting is "about the dignity of the establishment and the security of the nation."

The moderates and reformists have championed improved ties with the West and expanded social freedoms, but they suffered major setbacks since US President Donald Trump's election. He pulled the US out of the 2015 nuclear deal Iran signed with the world powers, giving relief to Teheran from sanctions. Tensions between the countries have heightened since 2018 when Trump pulled out of the deal.

Trump has re-imposed unprecedented new and devastating sanctions on Iran, throttling its economy.

Rouhani had promised that a compromise with the West over Iran's nuclear programme could lead to economic prosperity, but his initial successes in reducing inflation and boosting trade and foreign investment were undone by Trump's decision to quit the nuclear deal and re-impose sanctions.

Backing for Rouhani and the reformists have fallen away since the US administration withdrew from the nuclear deal that was supposed to give Iran relief from sanctions.

Iran witnessed nation-wide violent clashes between security forces and protesters disgruntled at economic and political conditions last November after fuel subsidies were cut. Nearly 200 demonstrators were killed and several thousand arrested.

Iran's economy contracted by nearly 9.5 per cent in 2019, inflation is at 35 per cent, and oil exports have gone from 2.1 million barrels per day in 2016 to about half a million at present. The World Bank forecasts zero GDP growth in Iran this year and just one per cent growth in 2021. Further sanctions could even dampen that projection.

Iran's tension with the US further escalated when its top military commander Maj Gen Qassem Soleimani was killed in Baghdad in a US drone strike on January 3. It led to a tense confrontation in which Iranian forces accidentally shot down a Ukranian passenger aircraft near Teheran, killing all 176 people on board on January 8.

Iran came to the brink of an all-out confrontation with the US for the second time in seven months when it fired missiles at US troops in Iraq in retaliation for the killing of the general.

The assassination of Qassem, who oversaw the elite Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) since 1998, shifted the country's mood dramatically. The Trump administration last year declared IRGC as a foreign terrorist group.

In a display of unity that would otherwise have been unlikely in the aftermath of the recent protests, unexpectedly large crowds turned out for Soleimani's funeral procession, including in southwestern Khuzestan province, which witnessed large scale violent protests last November.

The government's attempt to hide the fact that its forces had brought down the Ukranian airliner mistaking it for an American missile enraged the populace once again and thousands of people took to the streets to display their anger.

Observers say that reformists are dispirited and there is a resurgence of hardliners ahead of the elections. There is widespread disillusionment among the voters, who had enthusiastically supported reformist candidates just four years ago and then gave a thumping majority to Rouhani a year later in the presidential election, may now be reluctant to exercise their votes.

Supporters of more hardline and radical factions, galvanized by Soleimani's killing and their opposition to Rouhani, are likely to turn out in force to cast their votes while the purge of candidates is likely to discourage many Iranians from voting.

Also, a high turnout in the polls will be seen as a vote of confidence in the country's Shia theocracy, something Iran has tried to showcase amid the crisis with the US.

The conservatives, running for seats in the elections, are headed by former Teheran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf. Some 58 million Iranian out of 83 million are eligible to vote.

With the disqualification of moderate and leading conservative figures, hardline loyalists of Khamenei are likely to dominate the parliament.

Former Indian diplomat Mr Talmiz Ahmed said the outlook for Iran and the region remains grim.

"With the US' aggressive posture and the negative economic outlook, Iran's leaders backed by a right-wing Majlis, could increasingly distance themselves from the nuclear agreement and see confrontation with the US and periodic acts of violence against American interests, as retaliation for Soleimani's killing, as the only option available to them," he observes.

This will, in turn, evoke a hard response from Trump, who is facing his election later this year and is anxious to maintain his "tough guy" image before his core constituency, said Ahmed, who has served as India's ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Oman and the UAE.

The author is a former Editor of PTI and served as West Asia correspondent for PTI, based in Bahrain from 1988 to 1995. Views expressed are strictly personal

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