Iran's political landscape has become increasingly divided during controversial President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's second and final term. But as a diverse array of candidates to replace him takes shape, nearly all the contenders seem united on one thing: Attacking the president's legacy.
The eventual winner of the June election will wield influence over the direction of negotiations on Iran's nuclear programme, a topic of immense importance to the United States.
In Iran, however, the biggest election issue is the sagging economy, and most among an emerging list of about 20 candidates argue that it has been harmed as much by Ahmadinejad's tenure as by international sanctions.
The growing field of hopefuls is generating fresh popular interest in an election that few believed would be competitive just a short while ago. That is in large part because candidates must be approved by Iran's Guardian Council, a powerful body of clerics and jurists, half of whom are appointed by the nation's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Iran's traditional conservative factions - known as principlists for their loyalty to the founding principles of the Islamic Republic - make up the largest number of expected candidates. But instead of a field limited to conservatives, who once counted Ahmadinejad among their ranks but came to see him as a threat to their dominance, a number of candidates who many analysts believed would sit out for fear of not passing the strict vetting process have stepped forward.
Reformists, who have seen the modest social gains and improved foreign relations achieved during previous president Mohammad Khatami's eight-year reign evaporate under the current administration, are lining up against the president.
Among them is the lead nuclear negotiator under Khatami, Hassan Rouhani, who announced his candidacy Thursday.
The entrance of Rouhani, a cleric and one of the few moderate voices still prominent in Iran's ruling system, diminished the likelihood that Khatami or former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani - both allies of Rouhani - will run again, as had been speculated.
"We have faced chaos in decision-making under this government," Rouhani said Thursday, referring to Ahmadinejad's administration. Rouhani pledged to "save Iran economically and begin a constructive interaction with the world".
Three conservative former members of Ahmadinejad's cabinet, including former foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki, have announced their candidacies and are also running on anti-Ahmadinejad platforms.
Ultra-conservatives, led by Ayatollah Taghi Mesbah Yazdi, who was long seen as Ahmadinejad's staunchest supporter in the clergy but is now among his most vocal critics, have not yet announced candidates but are expected to do so soon.
Touting slogans such as "improvement and justice," "victory of honesty over wealth and power" and "government of ethics," many candidates are targeting the millions of disenchanted Iranians who believe the Ahmadinejad years were a time of economic mismanagement, fraud within the banking system and a misguided foreign policy that has left Iran even further isolated from the international community than it already was.
In contrast, Ahmadinejad's team - which is so far fielding two candidates - has adopted the slogan "long live the spring," a phrase variously interpreted as an exhortation to keep his faction in power and a reference to the movements that have challenged and toppled regimes in the Arab world.
A spirited election season with high voter turnout has always been the preference of Iran's ruling clerics, who consider participation as proof of popular support for their system. But a major concern of principlist and ultra-conservative hard-liners is that a high turnout might favour their adversaries.
According to official counts of the 2009 election, two reformist leaders won more than one-third of the vote. Their supporters and international observers assert that the total was much higher, however, and most agree that those who backed the reformists are unlikely to vote this year for any of the principlist candidates, who favour conservative social policies rooted in Koranic law.
This could create an opportunity for another reformist candidate or one backed by Ahmadinejad, whose circle has moved away from Islamic rhetoric in favor of a more nationalist tone.
But some reformists say that their supporters should not be fooled by the current administration's change in messaging.
One, former lawmaker Dariush Ghanbari, criticized both the current administration and principlists this week, telling a prominent Iranian news website: "The point is that our present problems, which are serious, cannot be blamed on Ahmadinejad and his team alone. Both they and the principlists, who once supported Ahmadinejad and are now his critics, are responsible."
Although most reformist politicians are quick to point out the distinctions between themselves and the rest of Iran's political establishment, their faction's destiny is intertwined with Ahmadinejad's.
With the principlists fielding the most candidates so far, there is a growing possibility that they will split each other's votes, opening an easier path to victory for either a reformist or one of Ahmadinejad's allies.
"A distribution of votes between our candidates will lead to defeat," Ayatollah Nasser Makarem Shirazi, a leading conservative cleric, said in an interview with the Fars News Agency this week.
"The result of division between those loyal to the revolution will be defeat. It would be good if [principlists] create a coalition and zoom in on one person, with the rest becoming helping hands."
Among these loyalists, however, two alliances are already threatening to dilute conservative votes. The first, known as the 2+1 coalition, comprises Tehran's mayor, a former foreign minister and a former speaker of parliament. The three have agreed to back the one in the group who seems most likely to win.
Another band of five conservatives calls itself the Coalition of the Majority and includes a former foreign minister, the current deputy speaker of parliament and Mottaki.
"Either the two coalitions are rivals or the five-member coalition has been set up solely to eventually back the 2+1 in an attempt to secure posts in the next government," said London-based Iranian political analyst Mohammad Ali Shabani.
"My money is on the latter. I say this mindful of the fact that conservatives have failed to unify in previous elections."
Ahmadinejad's political allies have thus far adopted a more unified strategy, fielding only two likely candidates, one of whom is the president's controversial former chief of staff, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei. Mashaei is seen by many as the man to beat, although it is still unclear whether he will be cleared to run by the Guardian Council, which is expected to approve candidates in May.
"Mashaei's potential candidacy will be a political earthquake if it happens, in that it will likely prompt the reformists to forcefully enter the political scene," said Shabani.
WASHINGTON POST - BLOOMBERG