Iran’s newly elected parliament convenes despite pandemic

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Iran convened its newly elected parliament on Wednesday, dominated by conservative lawmakers and under strict social distancing regulations, as the country struggles to curb the spread of the coronavirus that has hit the nation hard.

Iran is grappling with one of the deadliest outbreaks in the Middle East, with more than 7,500 fatalities out of over 139,500 confirmed cases. Turkey has the region’s largest outbreak, with 156,800 confirmed cases and more than 4,300 deaths.

Iranian state TV said all 268 lawmakers who were in attendance on Wednesday have tested negative for the virus. The lawmakers were sworn in after many of them arrived for the opening ceremony wearing face masks and observing social distancing regulations. Temperatures were taken before they entered the parliament building.

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They also chose a temporary speaker, based on age seniority, and were to listen to a message from the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and a speech by President Hassan Rouhani. A permanent parliament speaker will be chosen next week, for a one-year term.

Because of the pandemic, a traditional visit by the newly elected lawmakers to the shrine of the founder of Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, was postponed.

After keeping shrines, which are typically frequented by scores of visitors, open in the beginning of the outbreak, Iran later imposed lockdown measures, barring visitors from going inside the shrines.

Iran’s newly elected house is dominated by 220 conservative lawmakers, including more than 50 who are close allies of former hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. There are 38 independent lawmakers and 18 pro-reform and moderates, down from 136 in the previous parliament.

In the February election, 278 parliament seats of the total of 290 seats were decided. Two elected lawmakers later died, including one from COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus. Eight newly elected lawmakers were absent from Wednesday’s session; no explanation was given.

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The remaining 14 seats are to be decided in a by-election in 2021. More than 160 of the current lawmakers have had no previous parliamentary experience. There are 16 women lawmakers, one less than in the previous house.

Iran’s parliament does not have the 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.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death.

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