- Associated Press - Wednesday, August 17, 2011

DUBAI, United Aram Emirates | Iran’s internal power struggles are shifting into election mode, with hard-line political forces banding together to groom candidates for next year’s parliamentary elections and punish allies of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The newly formed bloc of 15 ultraconservatives factions - united by absolute loyalty to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei - marks a powerful bid to expand control over the political system before the voting for Mr. Ahmadinejad’s successor in mid-2013.

It’s also a chance for more payback against Mr. Ahmadinejad for challenging the authority of Mr. Khamenei earlier this year, including boycotting Cabinet meetings in a dispute over the appointment of Iran’s intelligence minister.

Mr. Ahmadinejad now is viewed as a political outcast by many for overstepping the line - virtually assuring that the theocracy will block his backers from seeking the presidency when his second and final term expires.

“The upcoming elections in Iran are all about sending a message that even modest dissidence is dead and loyalty to the system is what matters,” said Sami Alfaraj, director of the Kuwait Center for Strategic Studies. “Iran’s rulers want to project one strong face to the world.”

For the West, meanwhile, this means coming to terms with the rebound of the ruling system that crushed the opposition after Mr. Ahmadinejad’s disputed re-election in 2009.

Iran’s policies appear firmly in the hands of its twin powers - the clerics and the Revolutionary Guard military-industrial giant. Election sweeps could bring even tougher stands on key issues, such as the country’s nuclear program and support for factions such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza.

Parliament elections traditionally have been a “useful barometer to … predict the outcome of upcoming presidential elections,” said Meir Javedanfar, an analyst on Iranian affairs based in Israel.

It’s expected, he said, that many pro-Ahmadinejad candidates for the March 2012 vote will be disqualified by the Guardian Council, a body that decides who can run in general elections. The possible big winners: former allies of Mr. Ahmadinejad who have turned against him.

“This is in line with [Mr. Khamenei‘s] idea that the less power Ahmadinejad has, the less problems he can cause,” Mr. Javedanfar said.

Mr. Ahmadinejad already has paid a high price for pushing back against the ruling system.

Dozens of the president’s allies have been detained over the past months - including four senior government officials - after Mr. Ahmadinejad resisted Mr. Khamenei’s choice for the powerful intelligence minister post.

Hard-liners also have called for the arrest of Mr. Ahmadinejad’s chief of staff, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei. He has been denounced as the head of a “deviant current” that is perceived as questioning the system of clerical rule brought by the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

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