REUTERS - Polls opened in Iran Friday as Iranians began voting in two crucial elections on Friday, the first since the country's landmark nuclear deal with world powers last year. The vote could determine whether the Islamic Republic continues to emerge from diplomatic and economic isolation after years of sanctions.
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Some 53,000 polling stations throughout Iran take ballots for Iran's 290-member parliament and the 88-member Experts Assembly. Nearly 55 million Iranians are eligible to vote.
Iran's supreme leader urged voters to turn out in big numbers for the two crucial elections on Friday, saying such a show of strength would frustrate Tehran's enemies.
"I suggest our nation to cast their votes early ... they should choose their candidates wisely ... a big turnout will disappoint Iran's enemies," Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said after casting his vote.
Rohani said he had reports of a high turnout: "Election is a symbol of the political independence of a country. By voting, people decide the future of their country ... reports shows a high turnout in the elections," Rohani was quoted as saying after casting his vote.
At the same time as parliamentary elections, Iranians are also voting Friday for the Assembly of Experts, a clerical body empowered to choose or dismiss the country's supreme leader. Both are currently in the hands of hardliners.
The vote is largely a referendum on moderate President Hassan Rohani following last summer's historic nuclear agreement, which curbed Iran's nuclear activities in exchange for the lifting of international sanctions.
Reformists seeking greater democratic changes and moderates supporting Rohani are pitted against hard-liners who oppose the nuclear deal and openings with the West.
Supporters of pragmatist Rohani, who championed the nuclear deal and is likely to seek a second presidential term next year, are pitted against conservatives deeply opposed to detente with Western powers.
Both sides have called for a strong turnout. Most reformist candidates have been barred by a hardline clerical vetting body, along with many moderates, but their supporters have called on voters to back Rohani's allies and keep the conservatives out.
Results are hard to predict, with conservatives traditionally doing well in rural areas and young urbanites favoring more reformist candidates.
At stake is control of the 290-seat parliament and the 88-member Assembly of Experts. During its eight-year term it could name the successor to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is 76 and has been in power since 1989.
If the Assembly of Experts is called upon to choose a successor to Khamenei, its decision could set the Islamic Republic's course for years or even decades to come.
Mistrust of the West runs deep, and hardliners have sought to undermine Rohani's allies by accusing them of links to Western powers.
A more supportive parliament would allow Rohani to continue his economic reforms at home and diplomatic engagement abroad, and perhaps begin to chip away at social restrictions that irk a large segment of Iran's young, educated population.
Whatever the outcome, though, Iran's political system places significant power in the hands of the conservative establishment including the Guardian Council, the Islamic judiciary, and the Supreme Leader.
The 12-member Guardian Council must approve all new laws and vet all electoral candidates, on both technical and ideological grounds. It has already played a role in Friday's vote by excluding thousands of candidates, including many moderates and almost all reformists.
Nevertheless, prominent reformists and moderates have scrabbled together a joint list of candidates in Tehran - 30 for parliament, and 16 for the Assembly of Experts - and hope this can propel them to an overall majority in both bodies.
"Our speculation is that the extremists or principlists won't have the majority in the parliament and the general atmosphere of the majlis (parliament) will be changed," Mohammad Reza Aref, a reformist former vice president standing for parliament, told Reuters.