- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 20, 2020

Iran’s embattled clerical leadership faces a key test in parliamentary elections Friday, the first such test since President Trump withdrew from the 2015 nuclear accord and launched an intense diplomatic, military and economic pressure campaign against Tehran.

Critics say clerical hardliners on the government’s Guardian Council have already tipped the scales by disqualifying large numbers of candidates close to moderate President Hassan Rouhani from even running, virtually assuring the next parliament will push a more confrontational approach with Washington and its allies in the region. About 14,000 candidates are running for the parliament’s 290 seats.

The election’s results will have a modest immediate impact on the country’s foreign affairs or nuclear policies, as Ayatollah Ali Khamenei largely determines the country’s high-level policy decisions. More concerning for Iranian leaders will be Friday’s turnout numbers, with hardliners engaged in last-minute lobbying to pump up popular enthusiasm for the vote despite the restricted choices and the country’s deepening economic malaise.

The Trump administration upped the pressure again just a day before the vote, with the Treasury Department announcing new sanctions in Washington on the chairman and four other members of Iran’s Guardian Council. The restrictions will bar those designated from doing business with American entities or holding any assets in the U.S.

In a televised press conference Wednesday, Guardian Council spokesman Abbasali Kadkhodai said authorities now anticipate 50% of Iranians will participate in the election. By contrast, 62% voted in the 2016 elections and 66% voted in 2012.

Maj. Gen. Hossein Salami, the leader of the Iranian National Guard Corps, insisted the voter turnout will be larger than predicted, and told reporters ahead of the vote that each vote will be “a slap in the face of an enemy that hopes people will not participate in the elections.”

Opposition groups and anti-regime activists abroad have created several hashtags — #BoycottIranShamElections and #VOTENoVote — to encourage Iranians voters to boycott the election.

“None of the previous elections have had this level of crisis for the regime,” Alireza Jafarzadeh, the deputy director of the dissident exile National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), said Thursday at a Washington briefing. The regime is “absolutely desperate.”

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who was in Saudi Arabia on Thursday for talks that centered in part on the Iranian challenge, tweeted that Ayatollah Khamenei and the Tehran regime “fear one free election more than anything else.”

“Today, the U.S. sanctioned those responsible for denying Iranians the right to free and fair elections,” Mr. Pompeo tweeted.

The Guardian Council has blocked over 6,800 primarily moderate candidates from the ballots in the weeks ahead of the vote. Brian Hook, the State Department’s point man on the Iran pressure campaign, said Thursday said “the regime denies the Iranian people a representative Parliament by pre-deciding who is qualified to run for office.”

“You can’t truthfully call them elections when half of the people who want to run are disqualified by an unelected few,” he added.

With some surveys predicting a sharp fall in voter turnout, regime critics were already predicting a major propaganda defeat for the regime even before the polls open.

Soona Samsami, the NCRI’s U.S. representative, said the circumstances surrounding the election “have made it an easy decision for the Iranian population to boycott the election, and have left regime with tough, impossible choices to make.”

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