‘Become stronger’: Iranians urged to vote as Mideast tensions soar

‘Become stronger’: Iranians urged to vote as Mideast tensions soar
‘Become stronger’: Iranians urged to vote as Mideast tensions soar

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Nevin Al Sukari - Sana'a - Men walk past a wall bearing an electoral campaign poster, ahead of the upcoming elections, in Tehran on February 24, 2024. Voters are due to cast their ballots on March 1 to pick new members of Iran's parliament, as well as the Assembly of Experts, a key body in charge of appointing the country's supreme leader. — AFP pic

QOM (Iran), Feb 26 — In the Iranian shrine city of Qom, huge street banners remind voters to head to the polls in Friday’s parliamentary elections, held as the Gaza war stokes Middle East tensions.

Voters in the Islamic republic will pick a new parliament for another four years, as well as members of the Assembly of Experts in charge of electing Iran’s supreme leader.

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The vote comes amid a biting economic crisis and will be the first since Iran was rocked by nationwide protests over the death of Iranian Kurd Mahsa Amini, 22, after her arrest for allegedly violating the strict dress code for women.

Large posters around Qom — around 120 kilometres (75 miles) south of the capital Tehran—show Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in front of a ballot box, with a message urging people to vote in order for Iran “to become stronger”.

Islamic theology student Mohammad Jafari said he will heed the call, voicing hope that the election will strengthen Iran at a time its arch enemy Israel is fighting a devastating war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

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“The elections will strengthen both the country’s internal and international standing,” said 27-year-old Jafari in Qom, a centre of Shiite Muslim shrines and home to renowned religious scholars.

The Gaza war broke out after the unprecedented October 7 attack by Hamas militants claimed about 1,160 lives in Israel, according to an AFP tally based on official figures.

Israel’s military campaign has killed at least 29,782 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the Hamas-run territory’s health ministry.

Iran and Israel are bitter enemies, and Tehran has made support for the Palestinian cause a centrepiece of its foreign policy since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

Iran has supported Hamas in the war, but denied any direct involvement in its attack, or in military action launched by allied armed groups in countries from Lebanon to Yemen.

To Jafari, it is important that “our enemies see that the government has the support of the people” to deter military threats against it.

‘Neutralise enemy plots’

Regional tensions have soared since the start of the Israel-Hamas war, also drawing in Iran-backed militant groups in Syria and Iraq.

Iran has repeatedly said it does not seek an “expansion” of conflict.

Rahbari, a 40-year-old housewife in Qom, said the elections are an opportunity to assert Iran’s “independence” and “neutralise all enemy plots”.

She said it is important to vote given “the events that are happening in the region and also the threats made by Iran’s enemies”.

Iran’s current parliament, elected in 2020, has been dominated by conservatives and ultra-conservatives after many reformists and moderates were disqualified.

The 2020 elections saw the lowest voter turnout since 1979 — while a recent poll conducted by Iran’s state television found that more than half of respondents were indifferent to the elections.

Jafari believes a low turnout this time would show Iran “is in the grip of unrest and divisions”, fearing this might prompt a “military attack” on its territory.

But for others in Iran, the war in Gaza is not a major concern.

Iran’s economy has been reeling under crippling US sanctions imposed over its contested nuclear programme, and inflation in recent years has hovered near 50 percent.

‘Preserving Islam’

The 88-member Assembly of Experts is tasked with electing, supervising and, if necessary, dismissing the supreme leader, who has the final say in all matters of state in Iran.

Khamenei, now 84, has held the post since 1989.

Former moderate president Hassan Rouhani has called on the people to vote “to protest against the ruling minority”.

Rouhani recently announced that he was barred from seeking re-election to the Assembly of Experts after 24 years of membership.

Meanwhile a coalition called the Reform Front has said it will not take part in “meaningless, non-competitive and ineffective elections”.

Majid Hosseini, a farmer visiting the Masoumeh shrine in Qom, insisted that the elections this year are particularly important.

“If we do not participate, all these 40 years of hard work will be lost,” the 79-year-old said, referring to the Islamic revolution of 1979.

Similarly, Mehdi Mousavi believes choosing the Assembly of Experts is especially significant.

The assembly is “the guarantor of preserving Islam”, said the 39-year-old Qom resident, noting that its members are “experts in the important religious issues”. — AFP

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