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Originally published Tuesday, February 28, 2012 at 5:24 PM

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Elections highlight power struggle in Iran

This week's parliamentary vote may determine whether President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is politically spent or still able to exert influence over elections next year to pick his successor.

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This explains the recent sabre rattling by Ahmedinijad. MORE

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TEHRAN, Iran —

Iran's hard-liners have been so effective at crushing the opposition, they now are left brawling among themselves.

That's the messy political scramble in this week's parliamentary elections — the first major voting since the disputed re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in June 2009 and the mass protests, chaos and crackdowns that followed.

The ballots cast Friday amount to a popularity contest among various conservative factions, which were once united against reformists and are now sniping at each other and picking sides in the power struggle between Ahmadinejad and his opponents within the ruling Islamic theocracy.

The outcome, too, could resonate well beyond the 290-seat parliament.

In many ways, it may determine whether Ahmadinejad is politically spent or still able to exert influence over elections next year to pick his successor, who will become Iran's new international face and inherit challenges that are now hard to predict. The grip of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the protectors of the ruling system remains as strong as ever. They control all key appointments and policies — including nuclear and defense — while vetting every candidate for president and parliament. Elected officials are allowed some leeway, yet always with the understanding that the clerics at the top can reverse any decision.

Ahmadinejad, meanwhile, has been left politically wounded after daring to challenge Khamenei's authority.

The president first pushed back against Khamenei's decision in April to reinstate the intelligence minister, Heidar Moslehi, who had been dismissed by Ahmadinejad. The ruling clerics struck hard.

Dozens of Ahmadinejad aides were arrested or driven into the political margins. Hard-line media also began to smear Ahmadinejad's confidant, Esfandiar Rahim Mashai, as head of a "deviant current" that sought to undermine Islamic rule. Some critics even claimed that Mashaei conjured black-magic spells to befuddle Ahmadinejad's mind.

Earlier this month, lawmakers summoned Ahmadinejad for questioning over a long list of issues, including alleged mismanagement of the economy and his public snubs of Khamenei. The order — which should be carried out by the new parliament — was the first such action taken against an Iranian president since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

The parliamentary elections are effectively a referendum on the feuds.

Some hard-line Khamenei loyalists want to further punish Ahmadinejad and his allies. Others back Ahmadinejad, whose supporters have been campaigning aggressively in rural and poor areas with promises of more government handouts. Still other candidates occupy some kind of middle ground.

The staunch Khamenei group, known as Motahed, or United Front, is expected to do well Friday. But a pro-Ahmadinejad bloc, called Paidari, or Resistance Front, also appears confident.

If Ahmadinejad's allies can make gains in the new parliament — now strongly in the hands of his political foes — it would send a message to the ruling clerics that he has not been neutralized and can still try to get a protégé on the presidential ballot in 2013.

For the parliamentary elections, some independents were allowed among the more than 3,200 candidates. But the approval came only after they distanced themselves from the groups that led protests after claims of vote rigging in the 2009 election.

The main opposition groups have been beaten down by relentless arrests and pressures, including the once-powerful Green Movement. Its leaders, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mahdi Karroubi, have been under apparent house arrest for more than a year.

Since crushing the 2009 demonstrations, which erupted when Ahmadinejad claimed a landslide re-election victory, the government has disregarded demands for greater freedom and portrayed the grass-roots opposition as a small band of misguided troublemakers.

The election highlight a disconnect between the nation's leadership and the hardworking urbanites, who encompass bus drivers, university-educated nurses, business lawyers and others, and who make up the Islamic republic's increasingly self-aware and modern middle class.

But after years of frustration in their quest for more personal liberties, better relations with the West and adherence to the rule of law, many members of the ignored middle class are considered more likely to stay home.

For them, Facebook, satellite television and secret parties — all illegal in Iran — have combined with occasional overseas trips to create a separate reality in which state ideology is ignored as much as possible and elections make no difference.

"In my world, the currency has lost its value, our oil is under sanctions, we are weak, and I feel humiliated," said Amir, 28, a watch seller who did not want to be further identified for fear of retribution. "But in their world, the country is strong, the economy is booming and our future is glorious. We are on different planets."

In the leadership's parallel universe, six state television channels night after night repeat news of hope, achievements and future bliss. Viewers are told that Iran has the world's fastest rate of scientific growth, thanks to the "Islamic Iranian model of development."

Documentaries showing U.S. leaders shaking hands with Western-backed Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who was ousted by the 1979 revolution and died in exile in 1980, are aimed at educating the millions of young people born after his autocratic rule.

News programs interview ministers who reveal double-digit growth figures and report on infrastructural accomplishments. New bridges, dams, gas pipelines and electricity for remote villages contribute to growing "national self-confidence," as state television calls it.

In speeches broadcast live, Iran's topmost leaders herald international sanctions against their country as liberation from dependence on Western technology. The sanctions, imposed over Iran's uranium-enrichment program, are a divine blessing in disguise, they say, because they have generated a "can-do" attitude among Iran's "legions" of talented youths. In a speech commemorating this month's anniversary of the Islamic revolution, Khamenei said he was saddened that Iran's achievements were not presented better to the people so as to "cheer them up."

Although many Iranians take pride in their nation's accomplishments, they say inflation, sanctions and fears of attacks by Israel and the United States are fueling widespread worries about the future and the competence of their leaders.

So widespread is the stress that a Health Ministry official facetiously suggested adding antidepressants to the water supply, the semiofficial Mehr News Agency reported.

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