Via Financial Times

Iranians were voting in parliamentary elections on Friday that are expected to tilt the balance of power further in favour of regime hardliners as the Islamic republic is locked in a high-stakes stand-off with the US.

The poll is the first since President Donald Trump triggered an economic crisis in Iran by unilaterally withdrawing the US from the 2015 nuclear deal Tehran signed with world powers and imposing swingeing sanctions on the republic.

Washington’s “maximum pressure” strategy has weakened reformers and crushed the hopes of millions of Iranian voters who hoped the accord would usher in an era of greater prosperity after years of international isolation.

But US hostility has emboldened hardliners who feel vindicated in their anti-western stance and now look set to capitalise on voters’ despair and enjoy electoral success for the first time in seven years.

About a quarter of sitting MPs and hundreds of reformist politicians were disqualified from standing as candidates.

In Tehran, the mood was subdued with few signs of electioneering in a city in the grip of economic malaise. At many polling stations in the capital, there was a slow trickle of voters, with conservative Iranians appearing to turn out in higher numbers than those who traditionally back more reformist candidates.

“I think we should have a parliament that more strictly holds [President Hassan] Rouhani’s government to account because he didn’t do anything for the economy; he just wanted to negotiate with the US,” said Sedigheh, a 47-year-old teacher who voted in Tehran. “The US has always proved it cannot be trusted.”

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The republic’s ultimate decision-maker is Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, while the influence of the 290-member parliament is also restricted by the Islamic republic’s other power centres. However, the assembly can shape Iran’s political discourse and the results will set the tone for presidential elections next year. Iranian analysts are already forecasting a victory for hardliners in the presidential vote as Mr Rouhani, an architect of the nuclear deal, has become increasingly weak as he nears the end of his second and final term.

But if, as expected, the turnout on Friday is lower than previous years, it will damage the legitimacy that Iran’s theocratic regime traditionally seeks to claim from elections. It would also reflect the deep sense of disillusionment and mistrust many Iranians feel towards their leaders across the political spectrum.

“What laws have the MPs passed that have benefited us? The parliament has no authority and is dictated to by its top leaders,” said Parvin, a 59-year-old housewife, who has voted in every national election since the 1979 Islamic revolution but did not cast a ballot on Friday.

“I can no longer choose between the bad and worse and will never vote again. Let the country go in a worse direction with a hardliners victory,” she added.

The IMF estimates that Iran’s economy contracted 9.5 per cent last year as US sanctions severely curtailed the country’s ability to export oil, while prices of food and other goods have soared as inflation has risen to about 40 per cent.

In November, several hundred people were killed when security forces crushed protests triggered by the government’s snap decision to increase fuel prices by at least 50 per cent. Iran came perilously close to a full-blown war with the US last month after Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s most powerful commander, was assassinated in an American drone strike in response to attacks on US forces and the embassy in Baghdad.

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Tehran retaliated by firing more than a dozen missiles at Iraqi military bases hosting US troops. No American troops were killed and both sides sought to de-escalate. But fresh protests erupted in the capital and other cities after the government admitted it had mistakenly shot down a Ukrainian passenger jet shortly after it took off from Tehran hours after the Revolutionary Guards had launched the attack on the Iraqi bases.

All 176 on board were killed, and Iranians were infuriated that for three days the government repeatedly dismissed any suggestions that it had been shot down.

Many Iranians are now resigned to the fact that Mr Trump could win a second term when Americans vote in November, raising the spectre of more years of sanctions and isolation. That is likely to benefit hardliners at the expense of more moderate politicians.

“Reformists have not been agile enough to address public demands for more reforms [which] means the gap between the nation and the state has further widened,” said Mohammad-Ali Abtahi, a former reformist vice-president. “Reformists who long stood between the state and the nation now feel being pulled apart from both sides. Our biggest mistake [was] to support Rouhani who was not a reformist.”