Iran's parliamentary election this Friday is a potentially decisive battle in the struggle between political and religious hardliners in a country where politics has been dominated by the religious leadership since the 1979 overthrow of the monarchy. Unfortunately, it is unlikely to have much effect Teheran's stand on its deadlock with the West over its nuclear program.
It will be the first election since the country's disputed presidential election in 2009, which led to eight months of bloody street protests by Iranians demanding reform. Those protests were brtally surpressed and most of the opposition leaders have been detained or arrested and barred from any participation in politics.
The ballot takes place as the dispute with the West over Iran's nuclear program is growing alongside concerns that Israel might attack it over suspicions of developing atomic weapons. Tehran says the nuclear work is to generate power and is for peaceful purposes -that claim is simply not believed by anyone -including the Iranian people themselves..
With leading reformists either snubbing or being banned from the vote and with the outcome unlikely to force a nuclear re-think, the main significance is the contest between two rival hardline factions, loyalists to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The result will demonstrate which camp is stronger and will have a bearing on a presidential election next year.
The clerical establishment needs a high turnout to show its legitimacy and popularity, badly damaged after the 2009 election and ensuing anti-government unrest. A critical assembly could weaken Ahmadinejad and his supporters for the rest of his term.
Analysts say Khamenei supporters are sure to win the majority as he has around 20 million backers around the country. Supporters of both leaders portray their leaders as the most capable of defending the legacy of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the father of the 1979 Islamic revolution that toppled the U.S.-backed Shah.
The struggle began when Ahmadinejad tried to supersede Khamenei in Iran's complex political hierarchy in which the Supreme Leader has held total authority since the founding of the Islamic Republic. Since Ahmadinejad's re-election to a second term in 2009, which Khamenei initially endorsed, the growing influence of his circle has alarmed the Supreme Leader and his supporters. Khamenei loyalists accuse Ahmadinejad of trying to undermine his position by involving himself in theocratic issues, traditionally the Supreme Leader's own preserve.
An alliance of establishment groups - the Revolutionary Guards, powerful clerics, influential merchants and hardline politicians - have united to block Ahmadinejad's allies from winning the vote. Dozens of Ahmadinejad allies have been detained or dismissed from their posts for being linked to a "deviant current" that his rivals say aims to weaken the role of the clergy.
The volume of verbal threats has also increased against Ahmadinejad, with Khamenei threatening to eliminate the position of president.But Ahmadinejad has ways to fight back. The interior ministry, in charge of conducting the elections, can declare the results null and void and Ahmadinejad controls that ministry.
Whatever the outcome, real power on vital issues such as Iran's nuclear program and relations with the United States remains solely in the hands of the Supreme Leader.
Some argue that the establishment ultimately needs Ahmadinejad to survive, particularly when Iran is under international pressure over its nuclear activities and faces a tightening web of sanctions and threats of U.S. or Israeli military action against its nuclear sites.
Meanwhile, Western sanctions aimed at forcing Iran to make concessions on the nuclear issue have reportedly started to hurt energy and food imports. Many Iranians blame Ahmadinejad's policies for soaring prices.Rivals say he has left Iran internationally isolated and a victory for his camp would bring more pressure on the economy.Critics say cuts in food and fuel subsidies, replaced by direct monthly payments of around $38 per person since 2010, have fuelled inflation, now running at around 21 percent.
Concerned by economic difficulties, many Iranians are hesitant to vote for candidates allied to the president. The son of a blacksmith whose humble image still scores well with Iran's poor masses, Ahmadinejad still enjoys support in small towns and villages in Iran, particularly because of his handouts of petrodollars. But his image has been tainted by the country's biggest banking scandal, which was made public with Khamenei's approval.
Some politicians have linked Ahmadinejad's close advisers to the lead suspect in the $2.6 billion scam, claiming part of the money had been earmarked for the election campaign of Ahmadinejad allies. He denies any government wrongdoing.
Don't get your hopes up, though. The election is unlikely to herald a change in fortune for the reform movement. Pro-reform political parties have been banned since the 2009 election, which the opposition says was rigged. Opposition leaders Mirhossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karoubi, have been under house arrest since February 2011 and many reformists have either been jailed or banned from political activities.
Iranian authorities, while publicly hailing the Arab Spring revolts, are concerned that they could spill into Iran and have warned against any revival of the unrest of 2009.
An attack now by Israel on Iran's nuclear sites would likely throw massive support over to the Supreme Leader and ensure that Ahmadinejad's power and influence are minimized -or even disappear completely.
Live Long and Prosper....