Ahmadinejad underdog in Iran vote
Tehran - The outcome of Iran's parliamentary election will have little impact on the country's relations with the world at large.
The row over Tehran's nuclear ambitions, associated sanctions and the possibility of a military strike by Israel on Iran's nuclear sites are considered state affairs, beyond the reach of parliament.
Such issues are decided by the country's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his top advisors. In any case, Iran's political factions differ primarily over domestic, not foreign, issues.
Nevertheless it is telling that, seven years into the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the one-time darling of the establishment now faces pressure from all sides and has been pushed into an opposition role.
"Seven years ago, he had the entire establishment in his favour - now they are all against him," a political scientist in Tehran said of the growing criticism levelled at Ahmadinejad by former allies.
One reason for the criticism is a change in tune by Ahmadinejad's faction, which is now calling for less Islam, and more nationalism. Conservatives and the clergy fear that the move undermines the prevalent Islamic system.
As a result, the faction is being branded as "deviants" who even want to remove the mullahs, or mosque leaders, according to some clerical circles.
Ahmadinejad is keeping quiet on the matter - "for the sake of national unity", as he has said - but has not distanced himself from the allegations either.
Once celebrated as a Robin Hood of Iran's lower classes for his efforts to redistribute wealth, Ahmadinejad also faces criticism now for his broadly unsuccessful economic reforms.
"The Robin Hood of the poor turned into a figure like the Sheriff of Nottingham," said one foreign diplomat, in reference to the fictitious villain protecting the interests of the rich.
The president and his government have also failed to respond convincingly to a new round of Western sanctions. Over the last two months, the national currency, the rial, has lost half its value, leading to huge inflation.
"The current situation is pushing the country to the brink of bankruptcy," warned conservative lawmaker Ahmad Tavakoli.
Well over half of the 3 400 candidates are conservatives, loyal to the establishment, who say they are guided by the principles of the Islamic revolution. They are likely to win the election, through their sheer number alone.
The conservative faction is led by parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani, Ahmadinejad's former top nuclear negotiator who has become one of his fiercest critics. He is also being touted as Ahmadinejad's successor in next year's presidential election.
The reformists, who are close to former president Mohammad Khatami, are seen as outsiders and are expected to play a minor opposition role in the next four-year legislative period.
The hard core of the reformists are boycotting the elections. Their two main leaders, Mir Hossein Moussavi and Mehdi Karrubi, have been under house arrest for more than a year. Others are in prison or have withdrawn from politics.
The establishment hopes for a large turnout by Iran's more than 48 million eligible voters, while the country's "enemies" are accused of preventing this by campaigning online, through social networks.
"Social networks such as Facebook and Twitter are being used to call for an election boycott," said Interior Minister Mohammad Najar.
Facebook is blocked in Iran, where the site nevertheless has more than 17 million members, and lists several pages calling for an election boycott. Users access the social network using proxy programmes that hide the computer's physical location.
But far more important to election turnout is its timing, more than three weeks before the Persian New Year on March 21, on a Friday - a weekend day in Iran.
"I still have so much to do, and the gentlemen can also vote alone," said Farideh, a Tehran housewife aged 40. Her sarcastic tone referred to the 2009 presidential elections that returned Ahmadinejad to power, and were rife with allegations of fraud.