TEHRAN Iranians go to the polls on Friday to vote for the first time since last year's nuclear deal in elections that could determine whether the Islamic Republic continues to emerge from diplomatic and economic isolation after years of sanctions.
The contest will pit supporters of pragmatist President Hassan Rouhani, who championed the nuclear deal and is likely to seek a second presidential term next year, 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 Rouhani's allies and keep the conservatives out.
At stake is control of the 290-seat parliament and the 88-member Assembly of Experts, a body that chooses the Islamic Republic's most powerful figure, the Supreme Leader. During its eight year term it could name the successor to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is 76 and has been in power since 1989.
Both bodies are currently in the hands of hardliners.
Results are hard to predict, with conservatives traditionally doing well in rural areas and young urbanites favouring more reformist candidates. In Tehran's grand bazaar, opinion among the influential merchant class was mixed.
"I will vote for the reformists... if the conservatives win it will be bad news for me and other businesses because they are against economic liberalisation," said Adel Jahangiri, 61, who owns a shirt shop in the bazaar.
But retailer Sadegh Salehakhoundi, 40, said he would vote for conservatives because of their adherence to Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution and resistance to foreign powers. "We don't want any opening to the outside world," he said.
Mistrust of the West runs deep, and hardliners have sought to undermine Rouhani's allies by accusing them of links to Western powers.
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.
A more supportive parliament would allow Rouhani 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.
Such power structures have made some voters apathetic.
"I won't waste my time and vote, as nothing will change because the conservatives have the power in their hands," said Aria Behfuruz, 18, a first-year student of dentistry at Tehran University.
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.
(Writing by Sam Wilkin, editing by William Maclean and Peter Graff)
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