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Iran's Ahmadinejad wants talks with West. Iran's hard-liners balk.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who said this week he's open to talks, has lost the backing he enjoyed in the immediate aftermath of last year's election.

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The president has also publicly squabbled with key legislators and senior members of Iran's clerical establishment, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, over his refusal to fire his controversial chief of staff, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei.

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Mashaei and Ahmadinejad's recent nationalistic statements and public allusions to Iran's pre-Islamic history have intensified the wrath of many conservatives, who argue that de-emphasizing Islam could ultimately subvert the critical role of the clergy in the administration of the Islamic Republic.

Why conservatives don't want Ahmadinejad to talk to Obama

In October 2009, Iran's nuclear negotiators reached an agreement with the "P5+1," the permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany, to swap nuclear fuel, but discussions came to a standstill after Iran asked for changes in the initial agreement.

The UN Security Council passed a fourth, significantly more expansive round of sanctions against the Islamic Republic in June, which was quickly followed by the imposition of new unilateral economic measures from the United States and a number of Iran's business partners in Europe and Asia.

Iran's internal disputes came to a head in the run-up to this week's UN General Assembly meetings, with Ahmadinejad labeling the Iranian Foreign Ministry a mere “executive body” that “makes suggestions and follows up on issues” but doesn't determine policy, according to domestic media reports.

"The president ... is the highest official after the Supreme Leader” and parliament is subject to his authority, Ahmadinejad declared last week.

The Iranian president's conservative rivals in Tehran worry that any sort of a political deal with the US under Ahmadinejad's tenure will grant him permanent influence within the Iranian political system. Local analysts say Ahmadinejad will nevertheless continue to assert his preeminence in the Iranian political arena and spearhead a new effort to kick-start the process of US-Iran negotiations – even without the publicly explicit support of Iran's supreme leader.

“He keeps challenging the conventional notion that the [supreme] leader's support means [so much]. But the leader will have to do what's best for the regime, which is maintain the status quo,” says the Iranian analyst. "The conservatives could try to control or limit Ahmadinejad, but they can't stop him. All they can do is basically sabotage anything he tries to do on a serious level.”

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