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TEHRAN, Iran — Iranian voters went to the polls Friday in an election that could set the stage for a reformist comeback or see hard-liners tighten their hold on the country.
State TV showed long lines of people waiting to cast their ballots in the twin elections as the polls opened.
Some 53,000 polling stations throughout Iran are taking ballots for the 290-member parliament and the 88-member Experts Assembly. Nearly 55 million Iranians are eligible to vote.
The daughter of former moderate president Hashemi Rafsanjani encouraged voters to vote for candidates who endorse President Hassan Rouhani, who negotiated a landmark nuclear agreement with the U.S. last year.
"The most important goal we want as reformists is to have a pragmatic, intelligent and balanced parliament that will stand behind Mr. Rouhani and his programs, not a parliament like the current one that tries to block the government," Faezeh Rafsanjani told NBC News at a recent rally in central Tehran.
Rafsanjani was there to back Mohammad Reza Aref, vice president from 2001 to 2005 under Mohammad Khatami, the most important reformist president after the 1979 Islamic revolution that toppled the pro-U.S. Shah of Iran. The government has banned the local media from using Khatami’s image.
After years of isolation and crushing economic sanctions made worse by recent plunging oil prices, reformers such hope for a continued rapprochement with the West that started with last year's nuclear deal. Rouhani has also pushed social reforms such as greater rights for women, angering many conservatives in the strictly theocratic state.
"If hard-liners win the majority of seats in the parliament then we are going to have a continuation of existing problems, where ministers are threatened, [and with] rampant inflation and isolation," said a 29-year-old social sciences student who asked to be identified only as Farzad.
Reformers like Rafsanjani and Farzad face an uphill battle.
Hard-liners now dominate Iran's parliament and the Assembly of Experts, a body of mainly religious scholars that select the country's most powerful man, the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Of the some 12,000 potential candidates that applied to run for 290 parliamentary seats in the upcoming election, around 6,000 were rejected by the conservative-dominated Guardian Council that vets all contenders, according to semi-official Fars news agency.
The crowd at a hard-line rally at a religious school in Tehran on Tuesday was more subdued than the reformist one, although “Death to America” chants did break out periodically. They were there to listen to Gholam Haddad-Adel, a former speaker of parliament whose daughter is married to Khamenei's son and who is running for parliament.
“We want powers in parliament who are true revolutionaries and we have seen that in hard-line candidates,” Amir Hussien Takavi, a 23-year-old religious student at the rally told NBC News.
Conservatives candidates have tended to be very wary of closer ties with the U.S. and the West, and support what the Supreme Leader calls an “economy of resistance” that is not dependent on foreign trade.
Two days before the election, Khamenei weighed into the debate, warning Iranians in a statement on his website that "one of the tricks the enemy want to play in us is too divide parliament and government."
"The people want a brave and religious parliament who will deliver on it obligations and won't be intimidated by America," he added.