Iran's nuclear unity beginning to crack

Opposition, skeptics speak out in face of Russian wavering, possible U.N. sanctions

March 15, 2006|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

TEHRAN, Iran --Just weeks ago, the Iranian government's combative approach toward building a nuclear program produced rare public displays of unity here. Today, 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 President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are backfiring, making it harder instead of easier for Iran to develop a nuclear program.

This week, the U.N. Security Council is meeting to take up Iran's nuclear program. That referral and, perhaps more importantly, 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 said, "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 with a laugh 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. Yesterday, 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 U.N. sanctions. From the streets of Tehran to the ski slopes outside the city, some people have begun to joke about the catch phrase of the government - flippantly saying, "Nuclear energy is our irrefutable right."

Reformers, whose political clout as a movement vanished after the last election, 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 there will be 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 - but remained silent - are beginning to feel vindicated and starting to speak up.

Former President Mohammad 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 final say, issued a strong defense of Iran's position yesterday.

"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."

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