TEHRAN, Iran (AP) -- Iranians were voting for a new parliament Friday, with turnout seen as a key measure of support for Iran's leadership as sanctions weigh on the economy and U.S. pressure isolates the country diplomatically.
The disqualification of more than 7,000 potential candidates, most of them reformists and moderates, raised the possibility of lower-than-usual turnout. Among those disqualified were 90 sitting members of parliament who had wanted to run for re-election.
Also looming over the election is the threat of the new coronavirus and many voters headed to the polls with face masks. Iranian health authorities on Friday confirmed two new deaths from the virus, which first emerged in China in December, bringing the total death toll in Iran to four, from among 18 confirmed cases. The first two patients that died were elderly citizens in the city of Qom. Concerns over the spread of the virus prompted authorities in Iran to close all schools and Shiite seminaries in Qom.
Iran's leadership and state media urged voter participation, with some framing it as a religious duty. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei cast his ballot at a mosque near his Tehran office shortly after polls opened at 8 a.m. and urged Iranians to the polls.
"Anyone who cares about Iran's national interests should participate in the election," he said. Earlier in the week, Khamenei said high voter turnout will thwart "plots and plans" by Americans and supporters of Israel against Iran.
"Enemies want to see what the results of the U.S. maximum pressure are," he said, referring to U.S. sanctions and pressure from Washington that have strangled Iran's ability to sell its oil abroad, forcing its economy into recession.
After the disqualifications, around 7,000 candidates were left vying for a place in the 290-seat chamber across 208 constituencies.
After casting his ballot, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani called on the nation to stage another "victory" by massive voting. "Our enemies will be disappointed more than before," Rouhani said.
On the eve of the vote, the Trump administration ratcheted up its campaign of pressure on Iran by imposing sanctions on two senior officials of the Guardian Council, the body of clerics and judges that decides which candidates may run in elections. The U.S. also sanctioned three members of Iran's elections supervisory committee, saying all those targeted were responsible for silencing the voice of the Iranian people by rejecting thousands of people from running.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo criticized the election as a "sham" and a vote that "is not free or fair."
One of the sanctioned officials, Guardian Council's spokesman Abbas Ali Kadkhodaei, described Washington's latest move as "custom-made and illegitimate sanctions," dismissing the measure as just another example of America's "regional tyranny."
Tensions with the United States could strengthen hard-liners by reinforcing long-held distrust of the West. A parliament stacked with hard-liners could favor expanding the budget for the Revolutionary Guard Corps, which has been sanctioned by the U.S. It could also tilt public policy debates toward hard-liners who are opposed to engagement with the U.S.
The crisis with between Tehran and Washington spiked after a U.S. airstrike in January killed Iran's top general, Qassem Soleimani. The strike led to a tense confrontation in which Iranian forces accidentally shot down a Ukrainian passenger plane after it took off from Tehran, killing all 176 people on board. Most of those killed were Iranian.
The shoot-down, and attempts by officials to initially conceal the cause of the crash sparked public anger and protests in Iran.
The election is being held at a time of growing economic hardship.
Iranians have seen the price of basic goods skyrocket, inflation and unemployment rise and the local currency plummet since President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from Iran's nuclear agreement with world powers and imposed sanctions. The economic woes faced by ordinary Iranians fueled anti-government protests in November. International human rights groups say at least 300 people were killed in the protests.
The parliament in Iran does not have power to dictate major policies, but it does debate the annual budget and the possible impeachment of ministers. Power in Iran ultimately rests with Khamenei, who has final say on all key matters.
Local TV stations broadcast images from Qom, around 130 kilometers (80 miles) south of the capital, Tehran, showing women and men, some wearing face masks for protection, lining up in separate lines to vote on Friday. Qom is a popular religious destination and a center of learning and religious studies for Shiite Muslims from inside Iran, as well as Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan and Azerbaijan.
The Tehran governor tried to calm fears over the new virus, saying voters didn't have to mark their fingers with ink after voting. Using the ink was optional, said Anoushirvan Bandpay, according to the official IRNA news agency.
"People should not be worry about spreading coronavirus," he added.
Current parliament speaker Ali Larijani decided to step down after 11 years and is not running for reelection, though he was shown voting in his city of Qom on Friday. Mohammad Baqher Qalibaf, the former mayor of Tehran who is also the former head of the Revolutionary Guard air force, is seen as one of the front-runners to succeed Larijani.
The current parliament, elected in 2016, had more than 100 reformists and moderates, with the rest of the chamber split between independents and hard-liners. Some 90 current lawmakers were also barred from running in Friday's election.
Nearly 58 million Iranians, out of a population of more than 80 million, are eligible to vote. Every Iranian above the age of 18 can vote.
Turnout has been over 50% in previous parliamentary elections. In 2016, it was nearly 62%.
The polls close at 6 p.m., though polling stations have in the past stayed open late into the night to give people more time to cast their vote. Friday is a day of rest in Iran, as is the case across most Muslim countries.
Initial results are expected to be announced on Saturday. Presidential elections are expected to take place in 2021.