Iranians pay tribute to 'martyr general' as they vote
General Qasem Suleimani in civil dress during a public ceremony in 2015. Photo by the Ali Khamenei website.

In Iran, learning to be an anti-American soldier of the Islamic republic can start as early as 19 months of age -- at least for one family voting in Friday's general election.

But Mannaan, a blond toddler perched on his grandfather's shoulders at a polling station in the historic Hosseini Ershad mosque in upscale north Tehran, looked decidedly uninterested.

"I brought him here to train him in the way of the Islamic Revolution and to punch the US in the face," his grandfather Mohammadi said, as the boy looked up at the mosque's ornate dome and giant chandeliers.

Mohammadi, a 47-year-old factory worker, also carried a placard, denouncing US President Donald Trump -- who unilaterally pulled out of a landmark nuclear deal with Iran in 2018 and has since heaped sanctions on the country.

"Oh gambler Trump, we are here to vote," it said.

Addressing Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the placard added: "Dear Leader, we are ready to sacrifice our lives for you."

The parliamentary election comes amid steeply escalating tensions between Iran and the United States, which imposed fresh sanctions on five top officials in the country on the eve of the vote.

A low turnout was expected, with rising voter apathy hurting Rouhani, who was re-elected in 2017 promising more freedoms and the benefits of engagement with the West.

- 'Martyr Soleimani is alive' -

Looming large in the minds of many voters was Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani, a powerful figure who was killed in a US drone strike in Baghdad on January 3.

Many carried posters of the hugely popular general, pledging eternal allegiance and vowing vengeance.

Mehdi Zojagi went a step further, riding a bicycle festooned with plastic flowers from top to bottom, without even an inch of metal or rubber showing.

The handlebar bore a flag with one side showing Soleimani in paradise with other prominent deceased Iranians, including Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

The other side displayed the general's image with the inscription: "I too am a soldier of martyred general Qasem Soleimani."

"I'm here to tell the enemy that martyr Soleimani is alive and will be alive," the 85-year-old businessman said, speaking at a mosque-turned-polling station in Khorasan, a working-class neighbourhood in Tehran's south.

The entrance to the Lorzadeh mosque bore a gigantic banner showing Soleimani's bust and splotches of red paint.

Under it was the simple slogan: "Martyr Soleimani's blood will wipe Israel from the face of the Earth."

But others were concerned about more basic issues like joblessness and the cost of living in the sanctions-hit country.

"Unemployment is a big problem and many youths are turning to drugs," said Hosseini Okhash, 18, after voting for the first time.

Many said they had turned up to cast ballots because the country's supreme leader Khamenei told them it was their "religious duty".

- 'People have lost faith' -

Outgoing lawmaker Elyas Hazrati said he voted despite losing the right to stand again.

"I was disqualified by the Guardian Council over... lack of material commitment to the Islamic republic," he said.

Only around half of the 16,033 hopefuls are contesting the 290 seats up for grabs as the Guardian Council election monitor disqualified thousands, mostly moderates and reformists.

Ahmad, 30, looked on bemused outside the mosque and said he was shunning the vote to preserve peace at home.

"My wife told me, 'I will kill you if you vote'," he said, adding that she "hates this government".

"It's killing innocent people. We have lost everything and there's nothing more to lose," he said, referring to sweeping fuel price protests in November which drew a deadly crackdown.

"People have lost confidence and faith."

Photo by the Ali Khamenei website.