, TEHRAN, Mar 2 – Iran opened legislative elections on Friday, with the country’s 48 million voters being called out in what is seen as a test of how much support President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has among ruling conservatives.
Supreme leader Ali Khamenei cast his ballot moments after polling began, state television showed.
“The more people come and vote, the more beneficial it is for the future, prestige, security and immunity of the country,” he said.
He framed the poll as part of Iran’s showdown with the West, saying: “The arrogant powers, who have been defeated and have been delivered a blow to the mouth, are repeating the issue of sanctions and human rights.”
The elections, to fill the 290 seats in parliament, are being boycotted by Iran’s main opposition and reformist groups, the leaders of which have been under house arrest for a year.
It is the first nationwide poll since the disputed 2009 re-election of Ahmadinejad, which sparked widespread protests by opposition groups crying fraud and a bloody regime crackdown.
The elections are essentially a struggle between conservatives who back Ahmadinejad and a hardline current that despises him. Each claims stronger fealty than the other to Khamenei.
No protests were expected.
Iran’s police chief, Ismail Ahmadi Moghaddam, said security forces were “fully prepared” to counter any problems.
There were no international observers present to watch over the vote.
The Guardian Council, which vetted the 3,400 candidates allowed to run and will validate the results, called the idea of observers “an insult to the people” of Iran.
The council’s spokesman, Abbas Ali Kadkhodai, predicted on Thursday that “the turnout will be more glorious than in the previous elections.”
The last legislative elections, in 2008, had voter turnout of 55 percent, according to the official figure put out by the interior ministry.
The US-based rights group Human Rights Watch said in a statement that the elections would be “grossly unfair” because of the opposition boycott and the limited list of approved candidates that skewed overwhelmingly to conservative regime supports.
“Iranian authorities have stacked the deck by disqualifying candidates and arbitrarily jailing key members of the reform movement,” the group’s Middle East director, Joe Stork, was quoted as saying.
The vote was being held amid high international tensions over Iran’s controversial nuclear programme, which much of the West fears masks a drive to develop the ability to make atomic weapons.
The United States and Europe have imposed punishing sanctions on Iran’s economy, driving its currency down and making it increasingly difficult for it to sell its oil.
Israel has threatened military action against Iranian nuclear facilities.
Tehran, which denies it seeks an atomic arsenal, has responded to the pressure and Israeli threat with menaces of its own.
It has said it could close the strategic Strait of Hormuz at the entrance to the Gulf, helping to send global oil prices sharply higher. It has also warned of a “devastating” military response if Israel attacks.
The UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, said last week it “continues to have serious concerns regarding possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear programme.”
IAEA inspectors visited Tehran February 20-21 to try to clear up suspicions, but their requests to see the key military site of Parchin, thought to host blast experiments to design a nuclear warhead, were rebuffed.