Analysts say Iran's political crisis is reaching a critical point. The deadline for the Guardian Council to complete its review of candidates it banned from next month's parliamentary elections is just a few days away, and Iran's president has appealed for calm amid mass resignation threats in his government. Many observers believe Iran's struggle between democracy and religious authority will continue for some time.
The political standoff between Iran's reformists and conservatives was renewed this week, when the reformist parliament voted to reduce the conservative Guardian Council's power over elections, and the Council vetoed the measure.
On Tuesday, President Mohammad Khatami vowed that the coming parliamentary election will be fair, and parliament speaker Mehdi Karoubi assured Iranians that a compromise is approaching. He said he believes many of the banned candidates will be reinstated.
Both leaders hope to discourage reformist government officials from staging a mass walkout, or from boycotting the parliamentary election scheduled for February 20, as they have threatened.
Iran has been struggling with a delicate balance between a representative government and a more powerful, appointed authority that follows its own interpretation of Islamic law.
When the Guardian Council disqualified more than 3,000 mostly reformist candidates who wanted to run for parliament next month, it touched off a new crisis.
But analysts say this dispute is different from other struggles between reformists and conservatives in Iran. One key difference, they say, is that a U.S.-led coalition occupies neighboring Iraq and is working to create a democracy there.
Some analysts believe the religious authorities in Iran are looking to reinforce their position in case changes in Iraq result in a surge of democracy demands by people throughout the region.
Already in Iran, reformist candidates have won election in increasing numbers in recent years, and have held the majority in parliament since 2000. Iranian reformists view the Guardian Council's mass vetoing of liberal candidates as an attempt to ensure that conservatives regain control of parliament.
Professor of political science at Cairo University Hassan Nafaa says Iran's conservatives are under new pressure because of events outside the country.
"The regional and international environment has changed a lot," he said. "I think the skepticism is deepening between the two factions because one will accuse the other he is playing the game of the Americans and the liberals will accuse the conservatives of are creating a very dangerous path that could add much more pressure on Iran, and so on. So what is new is the international factor, and also the regional factor, because Iraq is now occupied by the Americans and is perceived as a direct threat."
Iran expert Niveen Mossaad, also of Cairo University, says popular support for reforms is chipping away at the power of the religious authorities in Iran.
Professor Mossaad says the Guardian Council may be intervening more harshly in election matters out of fear that if the Iranian people elect reformists in large numbers, it will be more difficult for the conservative clerics to overrule the parliament and impose their own policies instead. Professor Mossaad says the main political change the reformists want is to end the clergy's political power, and put them in an advisory role instead.
But even if many of the previously banned reformist candidates are allowed back into the election, analysts say there is another political problem for Iran's reformists to address. The analysts say this crisis will stir some familiar resentments among Iranian voters, such as disillusionment with the government's ability to bring about change, and perhaps a loss of faith in the president's gradual approach toward instituting reforms.