Amid COVID-19 pandemic, the 268-member Iranian parliament began its session on Thursday, with lawmakers wearing masks and observing health protocols, even though many did not practice social distancing inside the lobby.

Soon after arriving at the parliament building, health teams checked temperatures and tested lawmakers before they were let in.

Iran’s state-run media said all lawmakers had tested negative for the coronavirus, even as the country has witnessed a sharp spike in new cases in recent weeks.

One of the worst countries affected by the coronavirus, Iran has so far reported 143,849 cases with 7,627 deaths, according to the US-based Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center.

The new parliament was elected in February, but several run-offs were postponed as the pandemic swept the country. 

The second round of elections, scheduled for March 18, was initially postponed until Sept. 12 and then deferred until 2021.

The ceremony was attended by President Hasan Rouhani, his cabinet colleagues including Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, Judiciary Chief Ebrahim Raeesi, and senior government officials.

The session elected Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, a conservative lawmaker from the capital Tehran, as the new speaker. He secured 230 votes out of 264 polled votes, according to the official IRNA news agency. A former mayor of Tehran, he has also served as commander in the elite Revolutionary Guards and also police chief.

Qalibaf replaced Ali Larijani, a conservative-reformist, whose 12-year stint as the parliament speaker ended on Tuesday. Speculations are rife that he races to occupy the powerful position of the secretary of the country’s top national security body.

The parliamentary elections were held on Feb. 21, two days after the first COVID-19 were reported in the country. The conservatives managed a clean-sweep, ending the domination of reformists, who ended by with a meager 6.9% popular vote, down from 41.7%. The conservative camp polled 76.2% votes an increase from 28.6% in the last election.

The electoral exercise was also overshadowed by the disqualification of some candidates from the reformist camp by the country’s powerful vetting body – the Guardian Council.

Lowest ever turn out

Due to the outbreak of a pandemic, the elections witnessed the lowest ever turnout – 42.4 %.

The elections were held in the backdrop of the anti-American wave in the country following the killing of Iran’s top military commander Qassem Soleimani in a US airstrike in early January.

Experts believe the sentiment worked to the advantage of hardliners, who had always resisted the moves of reformists to reach out to the US for reconciliation.

Experts believe that the composition of the new parliament, dominated by conservatives will make it harder for reformists currently governing the country to undertake policy decisions.

It is also likely to boost the chances of conservatives in the 2021 presidential election and further harden Iran’s foreign policy.

Moderate Rouhani’s olive branch

On Wednesday, when President Rouhani took to the podium inside the parliament house (Majlis in Persian) to deliver his key-note speech, a big screen displayed pictures of Iran’s former and present supreme spiritual leaders along with Soleimani.

Attempting to reach out to conservatives, Rouhani in his address said he does not want confrontation but friendship and collaboration. During the campaign for the parliament polls, he had criticized the Guardian Council over the disqualification of reformist candidates and had antagonized the conservative lobby.

However, with speaker Larijani’s exit, a confidante of Rouhani, experts feel it will be difficult for his administration to influence the parliament’s decisions.

President Rouhani, a moderate politician and the architect of Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with the western countries, has been under fire since the US unilaterally withdrew from the pact in Nov. 2018 and revived sanctions against Iran.

Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei, in his message to the new parliament, called on the lawmakers to focus on enhancing the livelihood of people by addressing the economic problems.

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