After a stunning year that has seen Iranian hard-liners consolidate power across a broad spectrum of national life, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his allies are setting their sights even higher: the elected panel of clerics that appoints the most powerful official in the Islamic Republic.
The battle to wrest control of the Assembly of Experts from Iran's diminished reformists looms large as the nation prepares for its first elections since the balloting that brought Ahmadinejad to power in June 2005.
Friday's elections also will decide the makeup of thousands of municipal councils responsible for city services such as trash collection and building permits.
The balloting provides one of the last opportunities for Iran's marginalized reformists to regain a foothold in a country whose increasingly powerful hard-line government has jump-started an ambitious nuclear program and defied anxious Western nations to do anything about it.
Dominating the Assembly of Experts with an election victory would give Ahmadinejad's "neoconservatives" the lever of control over the most important repository of power in Iran.
The assembly is an obscure clerical panel that meets annually and is wont to issue vitriolic but insubstantial statements. It comes into its own chiefly on the rare occasion when called on to act as the Shiite Muslim equivalent of the Roman Catholic College of Cardinals and choose Iran's supreme leader.
Already, the hard-liners have moved to strengthen presidential powers, rein in dissent in the universities and shut down querulous newspapers. Now they're making a powerful play to stack the assembly with their brand of politics and theology.
"There is an undeclared battle for the leadership of the assembly involving the hard-line forces that have been emerging in Iran during the past couple of years," Sadegh Zibakalam, professor of politics at Tehran University, said in a telephone interview.
"They have captured all branches of government. They have been running all the local councils, they captured the Iranian [parliament], and last summer with the presidency of Ahmadinejad, they captured the executive branch of government.
"So for the first time since the Islamic Revolution, one political faction has all the power in Iran. And now this group of hard-liners, they're very much trying to capture the Assembly of Experts as well, in order to make sure that they can nominate the future Islamic leader as well."
The neoconservatives have parted ways with Iran's traditional conservatives, who are grounded in the comfortable bastions of the clergy and the bazaar. Ahmadinejad is an engineer, not a mullah, and his politics tend toward brash populism, reinvigorated military power and campaigns against corruption.
The hard-liners are facing off against Iran's reformists, the chief proponents of expanded social freedoms and a more conciliatory approach to the West. For the moderates, the elections represent an important chance to recover from the dramatic loss of most of parliament in 2004 and the presidency a year later, rendering them almost a spent force in the country's political life.
Holding on to a solid majority in the Assembly of Experts would allow the reformists to guide the selection of a new supreme leader, should the 67-year-old Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to whom even Ahmadinejad is answerable under the Iranian Constitution, die or become incapacitated.
More immediately, victory in the council elections in major urban areas such as Tehran and Esfahan would give the reformists a platform and media exposure from which to stage a comeback for the crucial parliament balloting in 2008.
But widespread disqualifications of candidates, especially in the provinces, have limited the reformists' chances of any major comeback, analysts say.
One barometer of the stakes is in Tehran, where a seemingly lowly local council race has seen three former Cabinet ministers, one former vice president and at least six former deputy ministers register as candidates.
"The elections are an important barometer of the state of play amongst the political factions: between the new conservatives around Ahmadinejad, the traditional conservatives and of course the reformers," said Anoush Ehteshami, head of the school of government and international affairs at Britain's Durham University.
"If the reformers are unable to make some gains, they will have very little platform to stand on for parliamentary and future presidential elections," he said. "Without that, they go into the political wilderness."
The Ahmadinejad camp's campaign for the Assembly of Experts is being led by Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, a 72-year-old cleric from Qom who has been described as the president's spiritual mentor. Former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, who has the support of Khamenei, leads the reformist camp.
Mesbah-Yazdi is at the forefront of conservative resistance against suggestions that the supreme leader should be elected by popular vote.
"Elections are staged all over the world," he scoffed not long ago. "What kind of a system would we have had if we didn't have the velayat-e faqih" -- God's designated jurisprudent on Earth?
"If someone comes along saying, 'No, sir! Velayat is an earthly matter, hence it should be determined by the votes of the people,' should we just keep quiet? Is there a better way than this for America to infiltrate us?"
The hard-liners appear to be sparing no effort to tip the earthly balance in their own favor in both elections. Candidates for the Assembly of Experts were asked to submit to a theological examination -- some incumbents refused -- and substantial numbers of candidates in the assembly and council races, mainly from the reformist trend, wound up disqualified from running.
The disqualifications echoed previous rulings that many believe weighed heavily in favor of the hard-liners during the parliament elections two years ago and raised serious international questions about their legitimacy.
"The situation is worrisome. They don't fool around as far as eliminating political rivals is concerned," Mohammad Reza Khatami, younger brother of Iran's former president and a member of the reformist Islamic Iran Participation Front, told the Iranian Student News Agency.
He said voters had become impatient with Ahmadinejad's failure to realize pledges of bringing oil money to the people in a nation struggling with unemployment and inflation.
"The officials have a big mouth for speaking, and the people have a big ear for listening. They thought that running the country would be easy, but now they are in a dead end and don't know what to do, and the people are gradually getting impatient," Khatami said.
Reformists can capitalize on fractures that have developed in the conservative camp, analysts say, if they can persuade the young, secular-minded voters who are their natural constituency to go to the polls.
"I voted in the first two council elections, but I don't think either of them did much for the city," Tehran resident Marjan Sadri said at a downtown cafe one recent afternoon. "The candidates and the factions should be honest about their programs and intentions, and do what they promise."
He won't bother casting a ballot for any of the battling clerics, he said.
But Abdullah, a cabdriver who didn't want to give his last name, said it was his "duty" as a citizen to go to the polls.
"I believe in the president and those around him. I will vote for those who follow in his path and who care about the poor people," he said, "who are honest and not corrupt."
Times staff writer Murphy reported from London and special correspondent Pirouz from Tehran.