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In Tehran, growing brutality undermines prospect for Iran-US dialogue

Protesters reported beatings and shootings near the parliament Wednesday. Regime opponents vowed to persist with protests that have deepened a cultural divide between hard-liners and more moderate reformers.

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Iran's Interior Minister laid explicit blame on Wednesday: "Britain, America and the Zionist regime [Israel] were behind the recent unrest in Tehran," said Sadeq Mahsouli, as quoted by the Fars News Agency, which is linked to the Revolutionary Guards.

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After expelling two British diplomats from Tehran this week – and London responding in kind by kicking out two Iranian diplomats – Iran is considering downgrading ties with the UK.

Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki announced that he would not attend a G8 meeting on Afghanistan planned for later this week that has been in the works for month and was meant to be a first step of engagement.

Zahra Rahnavard, the outspoken wife of Mousavi who campaigned with the former prime minister, accused the government on Wednesday of acting "as if martial law has been imposed in the streets," according to a Mousavi website translated by the Associated Press.

She called for the release of hundreds of detainees – including 25 staff from Mousavi's own newspaper.

Supreme leader not yet ready to engage?

Amid continuing anti-West rhetoric, Khamenei stated in early 2008 that he would move toward détente with the US if it were in Iran's interest, and that he personally would decide. He makes final decisions on all important matters of state.

But Khamenei's decision to so quickly endorse Ahmadinejad's controversial victory has raised speculation about what it means for any future dealings. Ahmadinejad's denial of the Holocaust and venomous rhetoric against Israel, along with his staunch defense of Iran's "right" to nuclear technology, does not make him Washington's top choice for interlocutor.

"I guess one reason [Khamenei] was so interested in Ahmadinejad was that he was seen as the best negotiator to talk to the US," says the observer. An equivalent move might be Obama putting Iran negotiations into the hands of high-profile anti-Iran hawks like former Vice President Dick Cheney or former ambassador to the UN John Bolton.

"The supreme leader probably trusts [Ahmadinejad], because he thinks he won't sell out the [Islamic] system," says the observer.

But another analyst in Tehran, who also could not be named, suggests that Khamenei's choice of the archconservative president indicates that the supreme leader is not ready to engage America, to ease 30 years of mutual hostilities.

"If [Khamenei] wanted rapprochement, Mousavi would have won," says this analyst. "If he does not see rapprochement with the US in his interest, he would elect Ahmadinejad."

Beginning dialogue with the US would be contrary to Iran's ideology, which has been codified weekly at Friday prayers since 1979 with chants of "Death to America." Iran may have the most pro-American population in the Middle East, but that may not mean Khamenei is ready to deal.

"In foreign policy, Iran wants to be insulated, but not isolated," says the analyst. "If you open up to the West and the US, you can't remain insulated…. The Islamic Republic only loses by formalizing relations with the US."