Iran elections: Beware Western plots to subvert the results, warns Supreme Leader as voters head to the polls

In a closely fought contest between hardliners and reformists, 1,385 candidates pull out to consolidate support in a complicated system

Iranians will vote on Friday in elections of great significance for the country and the wider international community amid grim warnings of Western plots to subvert the results and after the sudden mass resignation of candidates.

This is not, however, a slide back to the days of turbulence which led to divisions within the country and international isolation. Rather it is a sign of the anxieties being caused by the closeness of the fierce contest between the reformists and hardliners for the future of this nation of 77 million people.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei urged Iranians not to be manipulated into turning against each other by the US. The perfidy of the plot was such, declared the Supreme Leader, that “sometimes even the infiltrators don’t know they are part of it… One of the enemy’s ruses is to portray a false dichotomy between a pro-government and anti-government parliament.”

As the Ayatollah was expressing his disquiet, it was announced that 1,385 of the 4,884 candidates standing at the polls had pulled out, with the vast majority asking their followers to switch to others candidates. That still meant 17 people fighting for each seat, but was an attempt to enable votes to be focused on better-known contenders, with both the hardliners and reformists seeking to consolidate their support in a complicated system of counts.

The manoeuvres seemed unnecessary even a few days ago. The Guardian Council, which vetted all candidates, appeared to have sidelined the reformists by disqualifying thousands of them from standing at the two elections taking place, one for parliament, the other the Council of Experts, which can elect the Supreme Leader.

But the reformists mobilised, allying with conservatives who had become alarmed by the reactionary rhetoric of the hardliners in order to give them the best chance of victory. Their hope is that President Hassan Rouhani, having concluded the recent nuclear agreement with world powers that should free the economy from international sanctions, will now secure parliamentary backing to proceed with a programme of further liberalisation.

Hardliners reacted belligerently, accusing President Rouhani and his supporters of collusion with the West. The head of the judiciary, Ayatollah Sadeq Amoli Larijani, demanded vigilance to thwart attempts by the US and Britain to control the polls. “Unfortunately the enemies of the Islamic system have always tried to harm the Islamic revolution over the past 37 years,” he said.

General Hassan Firouzabadi, chief of staff of the military, declared: “If those being supported by Britain and the United States do not condemn these two countries’ meddling in Iran’s elections, they are considered convicted.”

The nuclear deal, as with any important decision involving Iran, would not have been possible without Ayatollah Khamenei’s approval. He was criticised by the hardliners for giving the go-ahead. His pronouncements on the elections, so far, have been even-handed and indeed helpful to President Rouhani. He urged every eligible Iranian to vote and stressed that wives did not need their husbands’ permission to do so. A high turnout is expected help the reformists. 

However, the Ayatollah does not want the liberals to hold too much sway, so made a point of slapping down President Rouhani, who objected to the inflammatory language being used against his supporters. “When I talked about a US infiltration plot, it made some people in the country frustrated. They complain about talk of infiltration all the time. But this is a real plot,” the Supreme Leader said.

It is difficult to gauge what impact the talk of a malignant foreign influence will have on the voting. There are no opinion polls to show how things stand, but it is commonly said that a sizeable proportion of the Iranian electorate “makes up its mind in the last 90 minutes”. It was, in fact, such a very late surge which took Mr Rouhani to victory in the 2013 presidential elections.

At meetings held by Gholamali Haddad-Adel, the hard-line leader in Tehran, there were ritual denunciation of the US and UK. A huge poster in one of the capital’s main thoroughfares, Karimkhan Street, displays the US flag with skulls instead of stars and falling bombs for stripes.

But reminders of past imperialist iniquities strike a chord with liberal voters as well, and Britain, “Little Satan”, is deemed to be as guilty as America, “Great Satan”. 

Coming out of a mosque in south Tehran, where the imam had spoken about Mohammed Mossadeq, the democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran overthrown in a British-American coup, Pervez Safavi said: “Hearing that name makes me angry, makes me think of what was done to us. I wasn’t even born when they got rid of Mossadeq [1953] but we were taught about him at school; my father told me about what happened.” 

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Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said the country’s enemies were fostering division within Iran (AP)

Mr Safavi, a petrochemical engineer, added: “The coup was carried out by the CIA, but it was British intelligence which planned it, we know all that. So how can you separate the two?” 

He is going to vote for the reformist list “because we need to modernise the country and Rouhani is the man to do it”, he said. But he added: “We certainly do not want the Americans or the British to think they can get back to the old ways.”

His companion, Mohammed Haidari, had read that the Obama administration was going to abandon measures to prevent people who had visited Iran from using the visa-waiver programme to enter the US. “It shows they are trying to mend relations,” he said.

Mr Safavi, however, was having none of that. “They know there is a big market here now and they are losing out to the Europeans and the Chinese. It’s just self-interest,” he insisted.

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