DUBAI: Iran’s parliamentary elections were thrown into turmoil after thousands of potential candidates were excluded from standing.
The elections, due to take place on Feb. 21, will be the first test of the government since protests erupted across the country in the aftermath of the downing of a Ukrainian airliner by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in January.
Iran’s hard-line Guardian Council, which oversaw the vetting process for applicants seeking to take part in the week-long campaign, on Thursday blocked 6,850 people from standing, as well as a third of the country’s current lawmakers seeking re-election.
Around 14,000 applications were made to the council. Of Iran’s 83 million population, almost 58 million are eligible to vote.
“The 7,150 candidates who are running for parliamentary elections have started campaigning,” Iranian state TV reported on Thursday.
Many of those barred from standing are said to be moderates, with some claiming none had been allowed to stand in some towns and districts altogether.
Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, himself a moderate, criticized the disqualifications by the conservative-dominated Guardian Council, claiming citizens, not the council, should have “the right to choose” their parliamentarians.
However, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei backed the council, saying that in the current climate, the country’s parliament could not host those “unafraid” to speak out against “foreign enemies.”
The Guardian Council has also sought to justify a number of its decisions, claiming various parties had been disqualified from standing over “corruption” or “unfaithfulness to Islam.”
Both Rouhani and Khamenei have called for a high turnout, despite their differing stances on the council, as a response to the ramping up of tensions between Tehran and the US.
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Iran is in the grip of an economic crisis, partially as a result of sanctions imposed by Washington, following the US withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal signed with former US leader Barack Obama.
The situation escalated following the assassination of IRGC commander Qassem Soleimani in a US drone attack at Baghdad airport in January, which led to Iran launching retaliatory strikes against US bases in the wider region and, ultimately, the fateful downing of the Ukrainian passenger jet.
In the wake of January’s events, the elections are seen by many as a litmus test for the popularity of Iran’s hard-liners, led by Khamenei. Some fear Rouhani’s previous pledges to liberalize the country’s repressive social and political structure may be sacrificed to give the regime a favorable outcome.
The furor surrounding the poll comes in the same week as a senior government minister caused embarrassment for the government on social media, after mistakenly presenting a children’s costume as the country’s potential official space agency flight suit, just days after said agency failed to send a satellite into orbit.
Information and Communications Technology Minister Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi apologized for posting the image of a Halloween costume on Twitter, allegedly by members of his staff, on Wednesday.
The image, since deleted, showed what appeared to be a children’s costume with an Iranian flag patch sown onto it.
Jahromi apologized to Iran’s scientific community for the “undeniable” mistake, adding that the country’s space program was “unstoppable.”
In 2019, the Islamic Republic failed in two other attempts to launch satellites. It also suffered a launchpad explosion in August, while a fire at the Imam Khomenei Space Center in February the same year killed three people.
The US has accused Iran of using its space program as a cover for the development of ballistic missiles.