We are the most democratic country in the region," said Manuchehr Mottaki, the foreign minister of the Islamic Republic in Tehran. Speaking in Davos, where he was attending the annual session of the World Economic Forum, Mottaki also claimed that the next Iranian general election would be the freest ever since the late Ayatollah Khomeini seized power in 1979.
Events inside Iran, however, provide a different picture. Last week the Council of the Guardians of the Constitution, a 12-man committee of mullahs and their legal advisers, rejected the application forms of almost 4,000 men and women who wish to run in the next general election scheduled for March 14. Almost all of the unsuccessful applicants belong to the 21 groups designated by Western observers as "reformists" opponents of the ultra-radical President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The list of the "rejected ones" reads like a who-is-who of politicians regarded by many in the West as "moderates" expected to put the Khomeinist regime on a less confrontational trajectory.
The list includes individuals who served in the administrations of Hashemi Rafsanjani, a businessman-mullah, and Mohammad Khatami, a mid-ranking cleric, who preceded Ahmadinejad as president of Iran.
There are also scores of former members of the Islamic Consultative Assembly (Majlis) the 290-seat parliament set up by Khomeini in 1980. In what looks like a massive purge, a total of 103 members of the present Majlis, all critics of Ahmadinejad, have also been declared "unfit" for re-election.
To be sure, the so-called "reformists" have never proposed any reform programme as such. Their reputation as "moderates" and "reformists" is largely due to the fact that they use the art of taiqiyah (dissimulation) to hide their true intentions from the outside world.
Ahmadinejad, on the other hand, shuns taqiyah. What is on his tongue comes from his heart. He sincerely believes that his brand of Islam stands on the threshold of victory against a corrupt, weak, fat and cowardly West led by a deeply divided United States.
The West's ambivalence so far has persuaded many Iranians that Ahmadinejad may be right after all. Far from benefiting the so-called "moderates", the cuddly policy preached by the likes of European Union foreign policy tsar Javier Solana, has strengthened the radical faction led by Ahmadinejad.
After all, the man is thumbing his nose at the so-called big powers and superpowers and getting away with. So, why would anyone want to abandon a winner and side with people who have always looked like losers?
Having captured the presidency and the Council of Ministers that goes with it, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), is now determined to storm other centres of power, starting with the Majlis.
It has put one of its own, General Reza Afshar in charge of organising the elections with other IRGC officers heading the electoral commissions throughout the country.
"Until recently they just wanted a majority," says Nasser Abdullahzadeh, one of the rejected hopefuls. "Now they want every single seat."
Even then, Ahmadinejad has taken care to reduce the powers of the Majlis. In a letter published last week he told the Speaker of the Majlis that the parliament had no authority to force the government to change its policies. In plain language, the Islamic Majlis was there rubber stamp the executive's decisions.
The Majlis Speaker, Gulam Ali Haddad Adel found the letter so insulting that he complained to the "Supreme Guide" Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
After several days of hesitation, the ayatollah responded with a letter that sounded like a mild rebuke for Ahmadinejad and a vague assertion of the rights of the Majlis. Ahmadinejad responded by saying that his government would not be affected by such epistolary exercises.
"The government will continue doing what is best for Islam," he asserted. Unless the "Supreme Guide" intervenes to allow at least some of the blacklisted "moderate" to stand for election, we must expect another decisive victor for Ahmadinejad and his radical allies.
Pro-Ahmadinejad groups and parties, coming together under the collective label of "Fundamentalists" (Osul-garayan) appear poised for a mass mobilisation of segments of society still loyal to the Khomeinist revolution. With middle classes expected to stay away, especially in the urban areas, those segments could prove large enough to give Ahmadinejad's presidency a second wind. And that, in turn, could put him in pole position for seeking a second term in June 2009.
Buoyed by record oil revenues and the failure of the United Nations to influence Iran's nuclear policy, Ahmadinejad is weaving a narrative of victory that appeals to both Islamist and nationalistic sentiments in Iran. And that, in turn, could enable him to embark on a bigger purge of the so-called "moderates" and "reformists".
The effective elimination of the "moderates" and "reformists" could, in turn, deprive Europe of one of its oldest illusions about Iran, that the Khomeinist regime still possesses a mechanism for internal evolution and change.
What will the "moderates" and "reformists" do, now that they have little chance of gaining a foothold in the Majlis? The decent response would be a boycott of an exercise that no longer has any real sense.
Why should anyone vote in an election when the winners have already been chosen in the corridors of power?
The trouble is that the "moderates" and "reformists" of the Khomeinist camp lack the courage of their pretensions. This is how Mohammad Reza Aref, a former "first assistant to the president" under Khatami and now the principal spokesman for the "reformists" has reacted to the blacklisting of his name along with those of virtually all his associates:
"We might decide not to field any candidates," he said. "But we shall not call for a boycott of the elections because we do not wish to harm the regime. We want the people to vote knowing that we have no candidates. In this way everyone would know that we are not responsible for things. We will protest, but won't make a big noise."
With enemies like that, Ahmadinejad needs no friends.
Amir Taheri is an Iranian writer based in Europe.