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In Iran, a split developing over country’s hard-line nuclear stance

In Iran, a split developing over country's hard-line nuclear stance By Michael Slackman

The New York Times – Just weeks ago, the Iranian government’s combative approach toward building a nuclear program produced rare public displays of unity here. But while the top leaders remain resolute in their course, cracks are opening both inside and outside the circles of power over the issue.

Some people in powerful positions have begun to insist that the confrontational tactics of the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, are backfiring, making it harder for Iran to develop a nuclear program.

This week, the UN Security Council is taking up Iran’s nuclear program. That referral, and, perhaps more important, Iran’s inability so far to win Russia’s unequivocal support for its plans, have empowered critics of Ahmadinejad, according to political analysts with close ties to the government.

One senior Iranian official, who asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitive nature of the issue, said: "I tell you, if what they were doing was working, we would say, ‘Good.’" But, he added, "For 27 years after the revolution, America wanted to get Iran to the Security Council and America failed. In less than six months, Ahmadinejad did that."

One month ago, this same official said that those who thought the hard- line approach was a bad choice were staying silent because it appeared to be succeeding.

As usual in Iran, there are mixed signals, and the government does not always speak with the same voice. On Tuesday, both Ahmadinejad and the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, insisted in public speeches that their country would never back down. At the same time, Iranian negotiators arrived in Moscow to resume talks – at Iran’s request – just days after Iran had rejected a Russian proposal to resolve the standoff.

Average Iranians seem less uniformly confident at the prospect of being hit with UN sanctions. Some people have begun to joke about the catchphrase of the government – flippantly saying, "nuclear energy is our irrefutable right."

Reformers have also begun to speak out. And people with close ties to the government said high-ranking clerics have begun to give critical assessments of Iran’s position to Khamenei, which the political elite sees as a seismic jolt.

"There has been no sign that they will back down," said Ahmad Zeidabady, a political analyst and journalist. "At least, Mr. Khamenei has said nothing that we can interpret" as signaling "change in the policies." But, he said, "There is more criticism as it is becoming more clear that this policy is not working, especially by those who were in the previous negotiating team."

There are also signs that negotiators are starting to back away, however slightly, from a bare-knuckle strategy and that those who had initially opposed the president’s style are beginning to feel vindicated and are starting to speak up.

Former President Muhammad Khatami recently publicly criticized the aggressive approach and called for a return to his government’s strategy of confidence building with the West.

"The previous team now feels they were vindicated," said Nasser Hadian, a political science professor at Tehran University who is close to many members of the government. "The new team feels they have to justify their actions."

Khamenei, who has the final say, on Tuesday issued a strong defense of Iran’s position.

"The Islamic Republic of Iran considers retreat over the nuclear issue, which is the demand of the Iranian people, as breaking the country’s independence that will impose huge costs on the Iranian nation," he said. "Peaceful use of nuclear technology is a must and is necessary for scientific growth in all fields. Any kind of retreat will bring a series of pressures and retreats. So, this is an irreversible path and our foreign diplomacy should defend this right courageously."

In a speech in the city of Goran, Ahmadinejad called on the people to "be angry" at the pressure being put on Iran.

"Listen well," the president said to a crowd chanting "die" as they punched the air with their fists. "A nuclear program is our irrefutable right."

When Ahmadinejad took office, he embraced a decision already made by the top leadership to move toward confrontation with the West about the nuclear program. From the sidelines, Ahmadinejad’s opponents remained largely silent as his political capital grew. Iran’s ability to begin uranium enrichment in and to remove the seals at a nuclear facility without any immediate consequences was initially seen as a validation of the get-tough approach.

But one political scientist who speaks regularly with members of the Foreign Ministry said that Iran had hinged much of its strategy on winning Russia’s support.

The political scientist, who asked not to be identified so as not to compromise his relationship with people in the government, said that some negotiators believed that by being hostile to the West, they would be able to entice Moscow into making Tehran its stronghold in the Middle East. "They thought the turn east was the way forward," the person said. "That was a belief and a vision."

The person added: "They thought, 99 percent, Russia would seize the opportunity and back the Iranian leaders."

The route forward remains unclear as Iran tries to regain a sense of momentum.

There is a consensus here that Iran has many cards to play – from its influence with the Shiites in Iraq to its closer ties to Hezbollah in Lebanon, to the prospect of using oil as a weapon.

Hadian said he believed that for Iran to fundamentally change course, its situation will first have to grow a lot worse.

"There are concerns to keep the situation calm," Zeidabady said.

"We have received orders not even to have headlines saying the case has been sent to the Security Council."

Nazila Fathi contributed reporting for this article.