Counting Starts in Iran Election Likely Dominated by Hardliners

Iranians voted Friday in an election that’s expected to hand control of parliament to hard-line conservatives empowered by the country’s turbulent and economically damaging standoff with the U.S.

Voting ended at midnight and the counting of ballots started almost immediately, according to state television.

While official turnout hasn’t been announced it’s expected to be lower than in previous years because of the hundreds of moderates and reformists who were barred from running, as well as reports this week of arapid surge in coronavirus cases in the country.

The semi-official Iranian Students’ News Agency reported that by 3 p.m. local time, some 11 million people had voted nationwide, equivalent to 19% of roughly 58 million eligible voters.

Earlier on Friday, state television provided round-the-clock coverage from a select number of large, busy polling stations. Several others visited by Bloomberg News in both affluent and working-class neighborhoods of the capital were largely empty.

Given the vacuum among moderate candidates, conservative factions loyal to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and generally opposed to engaging with the West arewidely expected to prevail.

Soleimani’s Killing

Recentmilitary exchanges, in particular the killing of General Qassem Soleimani by the U.S., and highly-charged rhetoric that’s punctuated the confrontation with Washington, have also energized Khamenei’s base.

Still, for Mohammad, a 29-year-old voting in Tehran, a shift in the balance of power won’t make much difference. “They’re all cut from the same cloth,” he said of the country’s politicians, withholding his last name due to the sensitivities of talking to the foreign media in Iran. “I don’t really think there’s much to set them apart.”

If arch-conservatives emerge victorious they’ll control most branches of the state for the first time since the end of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency in 2013.

Incumbent Hassan Rouhani, who delivered on his promise to end Iran’s long-running nuclear standoff with global powers but was unable to build a new era of prosperity when faced with President Donald Trump’s economic offensive, will be largely sidelined.

Black List

In a timely reminder of how hardliners can influence economic policy, the Paris-based Financial Action Task Force announced on Friday that Iran’s banking system will be returned to its so-called black list of countries after failing to ratify legislation required to bring the sector in line with its counter-terrorism financing and anti-money-laundering standards.

Hardliners, currently a minority in Iran’s parliament, have for several years fiercely opposed and effectively stalled the pro-FATF legislation that Rouhani promoted and struggled to ratify, and which would have effectively seen Iran adopt the United Nations’ Palermo Convention against organized crime.

Some 7,200 candidates vied for 290 seats on Friday. About 75 current lawmakers were barred from running again by the powerful Guardian Council, tipping the field heavily in favor of conservatives wedded to the theocratic ideals of Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution.

Friday’s election also had significant potential consequences for the Iranian economy and the wider Middle East region — including any hopes Iran will renegotiate its landmark 2015 nuclear settlement, hollowed out by the Trump administration’s withdrawal in 2018.

Looking Ahead

“The crux of this vote is whether it will indicate the outcome for the next presidential elections, which will be more significant,” said Ellie Geranmayeh, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

“If the Rouhani opposition does take over parliament, they will see this as ammunition that galvanizes them, and they won’t want him to have any foreign policy success in his last year,” she said.

Some prominent conservative politicians are using the election to stage a comeback and a potential springboard to compete in the 2021 presidential poll, when Rouhani will be ineligible to stand for a third term.

They include the former mayor of Tehran, Mohammad-Bagher Ghalibaf, who’s also a former general with the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Firebrand cleric Hamid Rasaei, who campaigned against the nuclear deal as it was being negotiated, is also hoping to re-enter parliament.

Threats to Ministers

Amid concerns of a low turnout, the commander of Iran’s IRGC on Thursday urged citizens to vote in a show of show defiance to the U.S. “Every vote by the people is a slap in the face of an enemy,” the semi-official Tasnim news reported the commander as saying.

If the new chamber does decisively swing in favor of conservatives, Rouhani may struggle to ratify any key legislation during his final year in office, including efforts to bring Iran’s banks within international anti-terrorism financing standards. Ongoing attempts to impeach some key ministers, including Oil Minister Bijan Namdar Zanganeh, are also likely to escalate.

Rouhani’s credibility was already battered by the failure of the nuclear deal to deliver the economic relief he’d promised after a decade of international sanctions.

From the get-go, foreign businesses were afraid to sign deals, fearful of running afoul of remaining U.S. sanctions. Any lingering hopes evaporated after the U.S. quit the accord and beganimposing fresh sanctions, which have since clobbered the economy. TheInternational Monetary Fund estimates Iran’s economy shrank by 9.5% last year.

Conservatives want Iran to abandon Rouhani’s push to open up to Western investment and trade, and focus instead on increasing self-reliance. While oil exports, down 80%, show no sign of recovering, construction, steel production and exports for cash to immediate neighbors are doing well.

A crisis budget released in December boosts handouts for the poor and defense spending, though it’s based on ambitious growth and oil export assumptions.

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