Iran parliament vote seen bolstering Khamenei

Election could be pointer for 2013 presidential poll; voters preoccupied by economy, not nuclear issue.

By REUTERS
March 2, 2012 17:53
2 minute read.
Iranian election officials at the ballot.

Iran election officials polls ballots 390. (photo credit: REUTERS/Morteza Nikoubazl )

 
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TEHRAN - Iranians voted on Friday in a parliamentary election likely to reinforce Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's power over rival hardliners led by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Iranian leaders were looking for a high turnout to ease an acute crisis of legitimacy caused by Ahmadinejad's re-election in 2009 when widespread accusations of fraud plunged the Islamic Republic into the worst unrest of its 33-year history.

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Iran also faces economic turmoil compounded by Western sanctions over a nuclear program that has prompted threats of military action by Israel, whose prime minister will meet US President Barack Obama in the White House on Monday.

The vote in Iran is only a limited test of political opinion since leading reformist groups stayed out of what became a contest between the Khamenei and Ahmadinejad camps.

"Whenever there has been more enmity towards Iran, the importance of the elections has been greater," Khamenei, 72, said after casting his vote before television cameras.

"The arrogant powers are bullying us to maintain their prestige. A high turnout will be better for our nation ... and for preserving security."

The vote will have scant impact on Iran's foreign or nuclear policies, in which Khamenei already has the final say, but could strengthen the Supreme Leader's hand before the presidential vote next year. Ahmadinejad, 56, cannot run for a third term.

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Iranians may be preoccupied with sharply rising prices and jobs, but it is Iran's supposed nuclear ambitions that worry the outside world. Western sanctions over the nuclear program have hit imports, driving prices up and squeezing ordinary Iranians.

Spiraling prices dent Ahmadinejad's popularity

Khamenei has told Iranians that their vote would be a "slap in the face for arrogant powers" such as the United States.

A US official said Iran had clamped down on dissent since the turbulent presidential election nearly three years ago.

"Since then, the regime's repression and persecution of all who stand up for their universal human rights has only intensified," US Under Secretary of State Mario Otero told the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva.

The two main groups competing for parliament's 290 seats are the United Front of Principlists, which includes Khamenei loyalists, and the Resistance Front that backs Ahmadinejad.

The president, a blacksmith's son, has long appealed to Iran's rural poor with his humble image and cash handouts from state funds, but spiraling prices have dented his popularity.

Energy and food imports have been hit by sanctions aimed at forcing Iran to halt sensitive nuclear work that the West suspects is a cover for a drive to build atomic bombs. Tehran says it has only peaceful aims, such as generating electricity.

Prices of staple goods, many of them imported, have soared because the Iranian rial's value has sunk as US and European Union sanctions on the financial and oil sectors begin to bite.

Ahmadinejad's critics accuse him of making things worse for low-income Iranians, saying his decision to replace food and fuel subsidies with direct monthly payments since 2010 has fueled inflation, officially running at around 21 percent.

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