LIFE could soon be very different for the millions of Iranians heading for the polls this week as they face one of the greatest crises to grip their country since the Islamic revolution.
Amid accusations that they have effectively mounted a coup, fundamentalists look set to gain power in Iran’s parliament and so push the country back towards the extreme fundamentalism from which it has gradually been emerging.
That could produce a backlash of street demonstrations against the clerics who rule from behind the scenes. Iran’s reform-minded President Mohamad Khatami has warned that Iran is veering towards religious despotism and "dictatorship".
This could also be an embarrassing setback for Prime Minister Tony Blair and other European leaders who have defied Washington by pursuing a policy of "constructive engagement" with Tehran in an attempt to move it out of President George Bush’s so-called "axis of evil".
The US argues that Britain should remain at arm’s length from Iran because it has one of the world’s worst human rights records and boasts of giving aid to terrorist groups throughout the Middle East.
Prince Charles, who became the first member of a British royal family to visit Iran in 33 years when he travelled to Bam, the site of a major earthquake, last week also found himself embroiled in the Iranian politician scene.
"The prince’s visit strengthens the position of hardliners at a critical moment," said Davoud Hermidas Bavand, a Tehran-based political analyst. He and others hold the view that a visit by the British Royal Family looks like a gesture of appeasement, only serving to stoke anti-western feeling to the benefit of the fundamentalists.
The immediate crisis stems from a decision by the ruling Council of Guardians, which is dominated by hardline clerics, to ban thousands of reformist candidates for high office.
The unelected 12-man body, which has the authority to block candidates, disqualified over 2,500 pro-reform candidates as "unfit" to stand. Several of those barred currently sit in the 290-seat parliament.
Hardliners accused reformers of creating tension by approving bills that undermine Islamic values. In turn reformers have accused conservative clerics of mounting a ‘coup’ to regain control of parliament and the government.
The bans caused outrage among the allies of the Khatami, who claimed that the vote was being rigged to oust them. Around 130 liberal members of parliament resigned and held sit-ins to protest at the disqualifications.
The council then reinstated around 1,100 candidates. But the reformers complain that no prominent liberal politicians and party leaders have been reinstated.
As a consequence nearly all of the 5,600 candidates who are now campaigning for Friday’s elections are hardliners.
"After 25 years, we are at the end of attempts to legally reform the system, and there are real fears and worries," says a former revolutionary in Iran. "But this is part of a dead end. If you don’t want another revolution, and legal reform doesn’t work, there is nothing left but a miracle."
Almost all the reformist parties are boycotting the elections. They include Iran’s largest reformist party, the Islamic Iran Participation Front, which is led by the Mohammed Reza Khatami, younger brother of the president and deputy speaker of parliament. He is one of those banned from running.
"This is no election. The Guardian Council has already decided for the nation. This so-called election will be a black page in the history of Iran," said Saeed Shariati, a leader of the front.
Only a few reformist groups that have had some candidates approved by the Guardian Council are running in the polls. They include the Militant Clerics Association, the only pro-reform clerical group in Iran, which is led by Mehdi Karroubi, the current speaker of parliament.
The arrival on the political scene of the moderate President Khatami in 1997 was seen as a "revolution within a revolution" which might lead to a more forward-looking Iran in the eyes of the rest of the world.
A number of European countries, including Britain, decided to engage with the moderates, and re-opened diplomatic relations with Tehran in the hope of encouraging the regime to move further along the road to reform. Foreign Secretary Jack Straw has since visited Tehran five times.
In the 2000 elections, the reformists gained a majority in the parliament. But reformists have increasingly complained of being frustrated in their attempts to modernise the country in the face of opposition from hardline clerics, all of them supporters of the late Ayatollah Khomeini, who returned to Iran in 1979 and ousted the Shah.
Scores of pro-reform newspapers have been shut down. There are dozens of political prisoners, some jailed for publishing the results of an opinion poll that showed a majority of Iranians wanted to re-establish ties with the US.
The hardliners look to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei who, as the Velayat-e-faqih (Guardian Theologian), is regarded by the Iranian faithful as God’s representative on earth.
On Wednesday, the 25th anniversary of the Iranian revolution, hundreds of thousands converged on Tehran’s Azadi Freedom Square after calls through the official media for celebrations for the anniversary. Normally the event is dominated by praise for the Islamic struggle and denunciations of the United States. But Khatami broke with tradition to condemn the hardliners’ election tactics.
"Elections are a symbol of democracy if they are performed correctly," he told the crowd. "If this is restricted, it’s a threat to the nation and the system. This threat is difficult to reverse."
Despite the propaganda and the laying on of official transport the numbers were far less than in 1979 when three million came on to the streets.
Analysts say that the conservative clerics have calculated that the rejection of candidates will draw only minor protest from a public that has grown disillusioned after seven years of failed democratic reform. It remains to be seen whether they are right.
A confidential opinion survey conducted by the government recently projected only a 30% turnout in the elections. Such a low poll would leave the religious conservatives with a legitimacy problem. It is no surprise then that state-run radio and television, controlled by hardliners, are devoting much of their air time to urging people to vote.