By Samia Nakhoul
TEHRAN (Reuters) - Iran's top leader warned voters on Wednesday the West was plotting to influence elections pitting centrists close to President Hassan Rouhani against conservative hardliners in a contest that could shape the Islamic Republic for years to come.
In remarks reflecting abiding mistrust of Rouhani's rapprochement with the West, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said he was confident Iranians would vote in favor of keeping Iran's anti-Western stance on Friday in the first elections since last year's nuclear accord with world powers.
Allies of the pragmatist Rouhani, who hope the deal will hasten Iran's opening up to the world after years of isolating sanctions, have come under increasing pressure in the election campaign from hardliners who accuse them of links to Western powers like the United States and Britain.
The charges seek to tap into Iranians' wariness of Western motives and memories of a 1953 coup d'etat against nationalist prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh that was orchestrated by the United States and Britain and strengthened the Shah's rule.
Rouhani on Wednesday denied accusations from hardliners that the candidates close to him were affiliated with Western powers, calling it an insult to the intelligence of Iranians.
In remarks on his official website, Khamenei was quoted as saying he was certain the United States had concocted a plot after the nuclear deal to "infiltrate" the Islamic Republic.
"When I talked about a U.S. infiltration plot, it made some people in the country frustrated," said the Shi'ite clerical leader, who has final say on all major state policy in Iran.
"They complain (about) why we talk about infiltration all the time ... But this is a real plot. Sometimes even the infiltrators don't know they are a part of it," he said.
"The nation will vote for a parliament that puts Iran's dignity and independence first, and stands up to foreign powers whose influence on Iran has been removed."
Supporters of Rouhani, buoyed by Iran's nuclear deal, aim to gain influence in the elections for the 290-seat parliament and the 88-member Assembly of Experts, which will choose the country's next supreme leader.
But potential detente with the West has alarmed hardliners, who have seen a flood of European trade and investment delegations arrive in Tehran to discuss possible deals in the wake of the nuclear agreement.
Since then, hardline security officials have arrested dozens of artists, journalists and businessmen, including Iranians holding joint U.S. or British citizenship, as part of a crackdown on "Western infiltration".
Rouhani had criticized the arrests before, saying some "play with the infiltration word" to pursue their own political goals.
Moves by hardliners to block moderate candidates and portray them as stooges of the West have soured the mood in the final days of campaigning, and Rouhani complained on Wednesday of a public discourse rife with "abuse, accusations and insults".
Rouhani has called for a high turnout, even though half of the candidates, mostly moderates and reformists, were disqualified by a hardline watchdog body, the Guardian Council.
A cultural adviser to Rouhani said on Wednesday that the president had sent Iranian citizens a message on their mobile phones hours earlier, encouraging them to take part in the vote.
Leading pro-reform parties and politicians have criticized the disqualifications, but say that they have no intention of boycotting the vote.
Rouhani's government signed a deal with six powers including the United States last July under which Iran curbed nuclear activities that might have been applied to developing atom bombs, and secured a lifting of economic sanctions in return.
(Additional reporting by Bozorgmehr Sharafedin and Sam Wilkin; Editing by William Maclean and Mark Heinrich)