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Iran votes in vital elections after nuclear deal
Tehran (AFP) Feb 26, 2016

Iran elections: key facts about the Islamic republic
Tehran (AFP) Feb 25, 2016 - Iran, which holds crucial elections on Friday, is an Islamic republic still rebuilding its international ties after implementing a deal with world powers on its long-controversial nuclear programme.

Here are some key facts:

- From monarchy to Islamic republic -

The descendant of the Persian Empire, Iran, with an area of 1,648,195 square kilometres (659,278 square miles), was long a monarchy ruled by a shah and dominated by the Pahlavi dynasty from 1925 to 1979.

In January 1979, Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi was driven out by a popular revolt and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, a revolutionary Shiite cleric who had lived in exile for a decade and a half, made a triumphant return on February 1, 1979.

The shah's government fell 10 days later when public radio announced "the end of 2,500 years of despotism".

An Islamic republic was proclaimed on April 1, 1979.

- Conservatives vs. reformists -

After the death of Khomeini in 1989, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was chosen as the country's new supreme leader, a post he holds to this day.

Over that time, Iran has seen a succession of presidents of various political stripes -- Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (moderate conservative, 1989-1997), Mohammad Khatami (reformist, 1997-2005), Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (ultra-conservative, 2005-2013), and Hassan Rouhani (moderate, 2013 to date).

Friday's elections to parliament and to the Assembly of Experts, both currently dominated by conservatives, are key tests for Rouhani. He hopes to secure a majority for moderates and reformists in parliament to enact political and social reforms.

- Historic nuclear accord -

After taking office, Rouhani relaunched formal negotiations with major powers including the United States on Iran's nuclear programme. Secret talks had already been held with Washington.

A historic accord was signed on July 14, 2015 and implemented on January 16, 2016, bringing a 13-year-long dispute to a close.

Terms of the accord stipulate that Tehran will not try to build a nuclear bomb, an ambition it has always denied. In exchange, crippling international sanctions will be gradually lifted.

- Shiite champion -

In parallel with its opening to the international community, Iran has asserted itself as the dominant Shiite power, facing off with Sunni heavyweight Saudi Arabia.

In the Syrian civil war, Tehran has backed the regime against Sunni rebels supported by Riyadh. It has also backed the Shiite-led government in neighbouring Iraq as well as coreligionists in Lebanon and Yemen.

- Economy recovering from sanctions -

Iran is the Middle East's second biggest economy after Saudi Arabia, with a gross domestic product estimated by the World Bank at $406.3 billion in 2014.

With a population of around 79 million, Iran is also the second most populous country in the region, after Egypt.

As of 2015, Iran ranked first in the world in natural gas reserves and fourth in proven crude oil reserves, according to energy giant BP.

Western sanctions on oil sales saw Iran's output sink to 2.8 million barrels per day, little more than a million of them for export. But after they were lifted last month, the oil ministry ordered an immediate 500,000 bpd hike.

The sanctions, which had been progressively tightened since 2006, had had a crippling effect on the whole economy and their gradual easing, even before the final nuclear deal, has led to a return to growth.

Business activity expanded by 3.0 percent in 2014, following contractions of 6.6 percent and 1.9 percent in 2012 and 2013, according to World Bank figure.

The International Monetary Fund projects the economy will grow by 4.3 percent in 2016-2017 as more sanctions are lifted.

Iranians vote Friday in elections billed by the moderate president as vital to curbing conservative dominance in parliament and speeding up domestic reforms after a nuclear deal with world powers.

A pro-government coalition called "The List of Hope" is representing President Hassan Rouhani's ambitions in the polls. Almost 55 million people are eligible to cast ballots that will ultimately elect 290 lawmakers.

They will also vote in a second election to select the Assembly of Experts, a powerful committee of 88 clerics that monitors the work of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

While MPs are elected for four years the assembly will be granted an eight-year term. Should Khamenei, who is 76, die during that time its members would pick his successor.

Voting starts at 6am (0430 GMT) and closes at 6pm although officials say polling stations could stay open if there are queues and more time is needed to cast ballots.

As Iran's ultimate authority, Khamenei's powers outrank those of Rouhani, but the president is looking for gains in parliament to allow him to build on the nuclear deal by bringing improvements at home.

The economy has featured strongly during the election campaign as Iran faces a stubborn challenge to overcome the damage that almost a decade of sanctions caused.

The elections will be a crucial indicator of the future direction Iranians want for their country.

Rouhani has played up the potential for foreign investment which he says will bring jobs, particularly for Iran's youth whose unemployment rate of 25 percent is two-and-a-half times the national average.

However, conservatives say strong economic growth will only be possible if an emphasis is placed on domestic production under a "resistance economy" model more in tune with the ideals of Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution.

- Call for high turnout -

Although he returned the economy to growth after inheriting a recession, the president remains vulnerable as the benefit of sanctions relief and a return of international business will take time.

If voters support the pro-Rouhani list, a coalition of moderate and reformist candidates, the president could swing the balance of power in parliament, creating an opening for social and political reforms on which he has so far been blocked by lawmakers.

But a one-week official campaign for the parliamentary election has been largely overshadowed by controversies over who was allowed to run for office.

The exclusion of thousands of candidates -- reformists said they were worst hit, with the barring of their most prominent faces leaving them with untested hopefuls -- has raised concerns over turnout.

A total of 4,844 candidates, about 10 percent of whom are women, are standing in the parliamentary election. Only 159 clerics -- a fifth of the applicants -- are seeking a place on the Assembly of Experts.

On Wednesday, Rouhani sent a text message urging people to vote, saying participation was needed "to build the future of the country with plenty of hope," echoing the campaign message of his allies.

The main conservative faction is headed by Gholam-Ali Hadad Adel, a former parliament speaker, whose daughter is married to one of supreme leader Khamenei's sons.

Results from outside Tehran are expected within 24 hours but the vote tally in the capital, which has a population of 12 million and is electing 30 lawmakers, will take three days.


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Iran's Rouhani seeks gains for moderates in election test
Tehran (AFP) Feb 24, 2016
Iran's President Hassan Rouhani is hoping his moderate allies can score a breakthrough against conservatives in elections on Friday, the first polls since his government's nuclear deal with world powers. The elections are a crucial test of Rouhani's public clout as he struggles to rebuild Iran's economy following last month's lifting of sanctions under the nuclear agreement, which took more ... read more

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