Iran on Saturday began registering potential candidates for March parliamentary elections, a vote that will be especially hard fought between supporters and opponents of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad within the conservative camp.
The country's major reformist groups are staying out of the race, claiming that basic requirements for free and fair elections have not been met.
In their absence, the poll for the 290-seat assembly is likely to pit hard-line candidates who remain staunchly loyal to the country's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei against conservatives who support Ahmadinejad.
Whatever the outcome, the vote is unlikely to change Iran's course. The country is a theocracy and Khamenei has final say on all state matters.
The March 2 elections will be the first nationwide balloting since Ahmadinejad's disputed re-election in 2009, which the opposition said was heavily rigged. That vote set off months of near-daily protests in which hundreds of thousands took to the streets in support of opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi who they claimed was the rightful winner.
The wave of protests was the biggest challenge to Iran's clerical leadership since it came to power in the 1979 Islamic Revolution. But a heavy crackdown suppressed the protests, and many in the opposition _ from midlevel political figures to street activists, journalists and human rights workers _ were arrested. The opposition has not been able to hold a major protest since December 2009.
For the March elections, the Interior Ministry is in charge of the weeklong registration process. All Iranian nationals between 30 and 75 years of age who hold a master's degree and have "proven themselves to be loyal" to Khamenei are allowed to run. Once submitted, candidacies have to be approved by the hard-line constitutional watchdog known as the Guardian Council.
The council's chief, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, has said the reformists, whom he called traitors, need not participate. His statement was widely seen as an indication the hard-line body would disqualify anyone perceived as a reformist from running.
In the previous parliamentary elections, in 2008, the council disqualified thousands of reformist candidates.
Former President Mohammad Khatami, a reformist, recently demanded that political prisoners be freed and that Mousavi and another opposition leader, Mahdi Karroubi, be released from house arrest. Khatami said those were preconditions for reformists participating in the March polling. None have so far been met.
Ali Mohammad Gharibani, a prominent reformist leader, confirmed last week that the reformists will stay out of the race.
"Despite efforts ... to create an appropriate election climate, unfortunately more restrictions have been imposed," said Gharibani, who runs the Reformist Front Coordination Council. "Therefore, the council has decided that it won't issue any election list and won't support anyone."
A major reformist party, the Islamic Revolution Mojahedeen Organization, or IRMO, said in a statement released Saturday that it would also boycott the vote. The statement was released outside Iran and posted on its website, which is blocked inside Iran.
"IRMO ... won't field any candidates in this sham election and won't vote. It calls on all reformist forces not to give in to ... pressure from the rulers who have spoken with the language of force and deception to the people ... and continue their civil disobedience by refusing to register," it said.
The group said reformist parties including IRMO have been forcefully dissolved, and had their websites blocked and their leaders jailed, leaving their sympathizers with no way to engage in free political activity.
Hard-liners say the threat to the ruling system now comes from Ahmadinejad's supporters. The president has been the target of a backlash since April for trying to impose too much autonomy in how the government is run, including defying Khamenei on his choice for the powerful post of intelligence minister.
Dozens of Ahmadinejad's allies have been detained over the past months _ including four senior government officials during the summer _ in the evolving power struggle.
(This version CORRECTS that four senior government officials were detained in the summer).)