March 2 (Bloomberg) -- Iranians voted today in the country’s first election since the disputed presidential contest of 2009 sparked mass protests, as sanctions targeting the country’s nuclear program squeeze the economy.
Voting to elect 290 members to the parliament, known as the Majlis, was extended until 8 p.m. local time due to long lines at polling stations, the Interior Ministry said. About 48 million Iranians were eligible to cast ballots for more than 3,400 candidates cleared to compete by the Guardian Council, a body of jurists and clerics. One-third of would-be candidates were barred, including about 30 members of the current assembly.
Iranian leaders urged a high turnout for the ballot, which takes place as the U.S. and European Union apply growing pressure with sanctions targeting Iran’s oil sales and central bank. President Barack Obama, in an interview with the Atlantic magazine published today, warned that references to possible military action against Iran are not a “bluff.”
“These elections are important for the regime, it needs to show it maintains legitimacy,” said Geneive Abdo, director of the Iran program at the Century Foundation in Washington. “They’ve eliminated the reformists and narrowed down who’s allowed to run. Now they need a voter turn-out.”
The U.S. and allies say the measures against Iran are aimed at preventing it from obtaining nuclear weapons. Israel has also threatened an attack on Iran to prevent that happening. Iran says it is developing atomic technology for peaceful purposes. Escalating tensions have raised the risk of military conflict in a region that holds more than half of the world’s oil, as Iranian officials warn of preemptive or retaliatory strikes.
Iran’s parliament doesn’t directly control foreign policy, and the outcome of today’s election probably won’t affect the country’s nuclear stance. The opposition movement that challenged President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in and after the disputed 2009 presidential election isn’t taking part today, narrowing the range of candidates.
“The competition is between various factions within the conservatives,” said Gala Riani, head of Analysis for the Middle-East and North Africa at Control Risks in London. “It’s a power balance between these factions.”
Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karrubi, who lost that election and then led protests denouncing the result as rigged, have been under house arrest for more than a year. Many of their supporters, who have argued for more freedoms at home and a less confrontational stance toward Western nations, have advocated a boycott of today’s vote. Dozens were killed when security forces suppressed the protests after the 2009 election.
Results from small constituencies will be announced 48 hours after polling ends, while in large constituencies such as Tehran it will take 72 hours, the state-run Fars news agency said today citing Solat Mortazavi, head of the election board.
This year’s heightened sanctions have led to a run on Iran’s currency, causing the rial to lose half its value on unofficial markets as Iranians rushed to buy dollars or euros to protect their savings.
The central bank announced a devaluation of 8.5 percent at the official rate in January, and authorities cracked down on black-market transactions. Ahmadinejad’s opponents have cited the episode as an example of his economic mismanagement.
Iranian authorities urged voters to go to the polls in a display of defiance toward the countries applying economic pressure.
“The controversies and verbal threats against the Iranian nation are many,” Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said after voting in Tehran today, according to Fars. “The best thing to do is to accompany talk with action. The more people cast their ballot today, the better it will be for the country.”
At the Valiasr roundabout in downtown Tehran, large posters display pictures of Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, a nuclear scientist who was killed in a bombing in Tehran in January. “The martyrs’ eyes are on your vote,” the posters say.
Iran has accused Israel and the U.S. of targeting nuclear scientists, at least four of whom have been killed in recent years, to halt the country’s technological progress. The U.S. denied involvement and Israel declined to comment.
“I came to vote to show our power, to show that the U.S. and Israel can’t do anything against us,” said Hamidreza Shadai, a 33-year-old electrical technician, at a polling station in the Narmak neighborhood of Tehran. “If we stand strong and show our presence and unity, they will never allow themselves to launch a war.”
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