By Samia Nakhoul
TEHRAN (Reuters) - A senior reformist candidate forecast victory for allies of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani over hard-line opponents in parliamentary elections on Friday, saying this would help the pragmatic leader revive an economy hit by years of sanctions.
Former Vice-President Mohammad Reza Aref told Reuters that even if hard-liners retain control of the 290-seat assembly, moderates would seek allies to enable them to press for an opening of the $400-billion economy to the outside world.
"We think we will get it, but if we don't get the majority and if we are a minority we will make a coalition to pursue our reforms and development plans," he said in an interview.
"Our speculation is that the extremists or principlists won't have the majority in the parliament and the general atmosphere of the majlis (parliament) will be changed. It is our hope but also our analysis is based on reality."
The term principlists means hard-liners who generally are anti-Western and keen to preserve the conservative core values and principles of the 1979 revolution against foreign influence and social reforms. Such politicians are estimated to control in effect 60 percent of the house.
Supporters of Rouhani, buoyed by Iran's nuclear deal with world powers, aim to gain influence in the elections for the parliament and the 88-member Assembly of Experts, the body that will choose the country's next supreme leader.
Aref, a Stanford-educated former presidential candidate and minister, who served as vice-president to the former reformist President Mohammad Khatami, leads the reformist list in the crucial contest in Tehran, where more than 1,000 candidates are competing for just 30 seats in parliament.
Rouhani allies have come under increasing pressure in the election campaign from hard-liners who accuse them of links to Western powers including the United States and Britain.
Aref dismissed such rhetoric as "natural during elections".
He added: "We believe in working to have peaceful coexistence with all foreign countries according to the framework of our national interests with one exception, which is the occupying regime of Israel."
The stakes are high for all factions on Friday, since the outcome may determine whether Rouhani has a mandate to push ahead with long-promised political, social and economic reforms, as well as influencing his chances of re-election in 2017.
Several Iranian opposition figures have said they will participate in the elections, ending a de facto boycott of formal political activity in the Islamic Republic and possibly providing a morale boost to Rouhani's camp.
In a Facebook posting, Taghi Karoubi, son of opposition figurehead Mehdi Karoubi, said his father had decided to vote for the first time since his arrest in 2011 and had asked for a mobile ballot box to be taken to his house.
Karoubi and fellow reformist Mirhossein Mousavi, both in their 70s, ran in presidential elections in 2009 and became figureheads for Iranians, many of whom protested against a contest they believed was rigged to bring back President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the eventual winner.
"After 2009, we felt taking part in elections is pointless since the votes will not be counted and results have already been decided by the state," said Taghi Karoubi.
VOTING FOR "THE GREATER GOOD"
"But after the election of President Rouhani (in 2013) we feel our participation can be effective since the government feels committed to protect people's votes."
Asked if a ballot box would be taken to Karoubi's home so he can vote, the head of Iran's election office, Mohammad Hossein Moghimi, was quoted by the Fars news agency as saying "all Iranian citizens can vote wherever they are and we will facilitate that".
The biggest opposition protests since the 1979 revolution were crushed by security forces. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei ordered the house arrest of Karoubi and Mousavi.
Karoubi family members have quoted the former parliamentary speaker as saying that despite all the problems he had experienced, he had made such a decision for the "greater good" and to "protect the republican aspect of the Islamic Republic".
Referring to the disqualification of thousands of reformist candidates by a hard-line vetting authority, Taghi Karoubi said that while the family believed Friday's elections were "not free and competitive" the contest was "a minor step in the right direction".
Mousavi's daughters on Wednesday announced they would also take part in the elections "despite all the pressures and shortcomings".
In an unprecedented step, several political prisoners also released statements last week encouraging voters to "clean up" the parliament and the Assembly of Experts.
(Additional reporting by Bozorgmehr Sharafin, Editing by William Maclean and Peter Millership)