Iranian politics are murky at the best of times. The country - whose 2,500-year monarchy was upended by Islamic fundamentalists in 1979 - has two leaders, but no political parties. Elections are ostensibly free, but 12 mullahs called the Council of Guardians have the power to veto any politician.
"Iranian politics are a mystery, even to the Iranians," sighs a Western diplomat in Tehran, the capital.
But with a presidential vote due May 23, Iran's political climate has become electrified by secret negotiations and backroom deals as seven candidates jockey for position. This election could have an impact on relations between the "Great Satan" West and Iran, whose role in Mideast peace is growing.
For the past year, the frontrunner to replace President Ali Akbar Rafsanjani has been parliamentary Speaker Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri. Mr. Nateq-Nouri, a conservative cleric, is backed by Iran's powerful bazaari class of merchants.
But now an outsider has upset the odds. The campaign of Mohammed Khatemi, head of Iran's national library and doyen of the intellectual left, has jolted Nateq-Nouri from complacency.
"We're no longer so sure about Nateq-Nouri," says a newspaper editor in Tehran, who asked to remain anonymous. "His confidence is gone. He's just not talking like a president any more."
Mr. Khatemi, a former minister of culture and Islamic guidance, was fired by Mr. Rafsanjani in 1993 for his liberal tendencies. Khatemi favors an Islamic socialism that puts "social justice" before economic development.
The success of his campaign so far has alarmed Iran's extreme right-wing politicians. "In an open vote, Nateq-Nouri could no longer be certain of beating Khatemi, so the way is clear for all sorts of deals," says the Western diplomat.
Khatemi's campaign would be boosted by an endorsement from Rafsanjani. So far, this has not happened.
Government officials say Rafsanjani is tied up negotiating his own future. A wealthy pistachio farmer from southern Iran, Rafsanjani was elected president in 1989 after the Ayatollah Khomeini's death and won a second term in 1993. Barred by the Constitution from seeking a third consecutive term, Rafsanjani has admitted that he is angling for a new executive post in government.
Under Iran's unique system of government, overall power is shared between an elected, executive president and an unelected supreme leader who retains ultimate executive power, including the ability to dismiss the president. The current Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was appointed when Ayatollah Khomeini died in 1989.
One possible option for Rafsanjani is becoming deputy to Khamenei. That would give Rafsanjani immense influence over the new president. "His aim is not simply to keep [hard-liner] Nateq-Nouri out of the presidency. Rafsanjani wants to make sure he stays around himself," says the Tehran editor.
Iranians are divided on Rafsanjani's chances of political survival. Although an adept tactician, his influence has eroded during his second term. Iranian analysts say conservative members of the ruling elite, led by Nateq-Nouri, chipped away at his economic reform program, reducing it to slogans.
Yet few Iranians believe that Rafsanjani will retire to his family's pistachio farms without a fight. "Rafsanjani and Khamenei go way back together, right back to theological school," says the editor. "They may have different agendas, but they have struck up a working relationship. I can't accept that Rafsanjani will simply turn his back on politics."
The only other serious contender for the presidency is Mohammed Reyshahri, a former intelligence minister and one of the most hard-line figures in Iranian politics. "Reyshahri is seen as the Prince of Darkness, even within the government," says another Western diplomat. "His political agenda is unsophisticated, and his panacea for the economy is to get rid of corruption. He would not do well in an open vote."
Iran's ruling clerics, who have the power to debar any prospective candidate, face a tough choice. The Islamic authorities want to protect their claim to represent an elected government; a low voter turnout would be an embarrassment.
"Nateq-Nouri is perceived as a safe pair of hands who can be trusted not to raise uncomfortable questions about reform," says the second diplomat, "but he is unpopular with the voters."
Khatemi, conversely, may rouse the voters, but he could introduce thorny questions of political liberalization. He has addressed workers' rights, women's rights, and the problems facing the young. If no contender wins an overall majority in the May poll, a second-round vote will take place in June. The political ground is still shifting; many deals are likely to be made and broken before the Council of Guardians releases its list of candidates this month.