Iran holds parliamentary elections March 14 that are widely expected to be something of a referendum on the policies of the country's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. As VOA Correspondent Gary Thomas reports, they may also give signals as to who is in and who is out in Iran's circles of power.
After Friday's deadline had passed, Iranian officials said about 7,200 people, including 590 women, had applied to be candidates for the 290-seat Majlis, or parliament.
But candidates must still be approved by the 12-member Guardian Council, which was criticized for disqualifying thousands of reform candidates in previous elections.
As there are no political parties in Iran, candidates run as individuals, but their affiliation with one faction or another is clear to voters. The list of aspiring legislators ranges from reformist to staunch conservative. The reformists hope to break the hold of hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on the Majlis and pave the way for ousting Mr. Ahmadinejad in the 2009 presidential election.
Analysts say the release in December of a new U.S. national intelligence estimate on Iran's nuclear program has spawned political fallout. The estimate said Iran had halted nuclear-weapons research in 2003, and that it is not certain that Iran wants to pursue nuclear weapons.
The security editor for the U.S. edition of Jane's Intelligence, Alex Vatanka, says the publication of the report shifted Iran's political focus from confrontation with the United States to domestic economic affairs.
"What the American National Intelligence Estimate has done is make it very difficult for Ahmadinejad and the new Islamist faction that he is essentially spearheading to play the nationalist card anymore," said Alex Vatanka. "With the American gun removed from the Iranian head, Ahmadinejad is now being criticized for his biggest shortcomings since taking over, and that is the total failure of his economic policies."
Mr. Ahmadinejad won the presidency in 2005 on a populist platform of redistributing Iran's oil wealth and helping the poor. But even with record prices for oil, Iran's economy remains in the doldrums, with inflation at around 19 percent and growth stalling at near five percent.
Vatanka says for most voters the economy is the most impotatnt issue.
"The truth of the matter is this: U.S.-Iran relations is a subject that really concerns the elite in Iran, and at best the upper middle classes," said Vatanka. "This is not an issue that your ordinary Iranian has the time or energy or resources to get engaged or get involved with. On the other hand, when the price of bread, petrol, housing goes up, that's when they start feeling the pressure."
Prominent figures such as former Iranian presidents Mohammad Khatami and Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Tehran mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, ex-nuclear negotiator Hassan Rowhani, and former Revolutionary Guards chief Mohsen Rezaie have all publicly criticized Mr. Ahmadinejad recently over the economy.
There are competing centers of power in Iran, and the presidency is only one of them. The most powerful figure remains the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei. Analysts say Khamenei tacitly backed Mr. Ahmadinejad in the 2005 election.
But Ken Katzman, Iran affairs analyst at the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, believes that the supreme leader has become increasingly concerned about Mr. Ahmadinejad's bellicose statements.
"The supreme leader views Ahmadinejad as somewhat impulsive and has the potential to lead Iran into a confrontation, which the supreme leader knows full well would not particularly benefit Iran, and Iran would not particularly look too good in such a confrontation," said Ken Katzman. "So I felt all along that this split was emerging."
Katzman believes that the pendulum will swing away from the Ahmadinejad camp back to more moderate conservatives, such as Rafsanjani, who lost to Mr. Ahmadinejad in the 2005 presidential election.
"I think it is going to swing back more towards the center," he said. "Obviously Khamenei, the supreme leader, and the establishment is obviously not going to support the reformists. They would not go that far. But I think they are going to support a brand of candidate who is not an 'Ahmadinejadite', so to speak, not sympathetic to him, but much more reasoned candidates."
The Guardian Council will not announce the slate of approved candidates until March 5, which gives prospective parliamentarians little time to campaign before the March 14 vote.