Iran's leader drawing fire

President Ahmadinejad is proving too radical even for some Iranian conservatives.

Courting confrontation both at home and abroad, Iran's hard-line president is inserting like-minded ideologues into key positions. He's holding strong to Iran's nuclear ambitions. And he's inviting ire in the West with more anti-Israel rhetoric.

But President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is drawing criticism from abroad - and from some conservatives in Iran - for crossing such so-called red lines.

As the chief of the UN's nuclear watchdog agency Mohamed ElBaradei accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo on Saturday, he declared that "we must ensure, absolutely, that no more countries acquire these deadly [nuclear] weapons." Mr. ElBaradei, who shared the prize with his International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), says the UN is "losing patience" with Iran to "show the kind of transparency they need to show."

Gholamreza Aghazadeh, the head of Iran's nuclear organization, countered that "Iran is also losing its patience with them," and will "no doubt" produce its own nuclear fuel.

This nuclear diplomatic sparring was accompanied by sharp condemnation in the West this weekend after Mr. Ahmadinejad denied that the Holocaust took place, and suggested that Israel should move to Europe. The outside criticism is coincidoing with political attacks from within.

The president's fourth candidate for the top oil post, veteran ministry official Kazem Vaziri-Hamaneh, was finally approved by parliament Sunday. But that "victory" comes amid rising concern among clerics and many conservatives about Ahmadinejad's decisions to replace top managers with less-experienced ideologues.

While Iran's parliament is dominated by conservatives, analysts say that Ahmadinejad can only count on one-quarter of the votes. The parliament rejected his first three inexperienced candidates for oil minister - an unprecedented setback for a new president here. The industry generates as much as 80 percent of government revenues.

Now some in parliament are trying to unseat his defense minister over the military plane crash that killed 108 people last week.

Even Iran's fundamentalists are worried about Ahmadinejad

"The fundamentalists criticize [Ahmadinejad] because they don't want a bad situation to get worse," says Mohammad Ali Ayazi, a cleric and professor at the prestigious seminary in Iran's religious center of Qom. "The more [Ahmadinejad's cabinet] do not satisfy the promises they made, the criticism will increase toward them," says Mr. Ayazi. The president's [populist] election slogans "have less color now; it's not the same. Maybe after six months, they will have no color at all."

President says he's beholden to no political faction

Ahmadinejad's supporters seem unfazed by the latest political setbacks and criticism. "Previous governments and parliaments closed their eyes and did not accept criticism," says Hamidreza Taraghi, of the right-wing Islamic Coalition Society. "Self-criticism is necessary, because it means a certain level of growth in managing the country - that will benefit everyone, and make everyone accountable."

Ahmadinejad often points out that he was an underdog who won the June presidential vote with little formal backing from Iran's power centers, promising to redistribute Iran's oil wealth to the poor, and to root out widespread corruption. He says he's not beholden to any faction.

"[Ahmadinejad] is a kind of idealist, but there is a gap between the ideals you have in your mind, and what you find in the real world," says Amir Mohebian, a columnist with the conservative Resalat newspaper. "And Mr. Ahmadinejad wants to jump" from one to the other.

While uncompromising language helps cement the president's reputation for some in Iran as a "strong man, with support around the Islamic world," says Mr. Mohebian, the resulting pressure from outside and inside Iran could make him "more radical."

Concern about that shift is echoed in Qom, as the president fills a series of top positions with nonclerical veterans of the 1980s Iran-Iraq war - ideologues like the president himself, who are seen as the second-generation leaders of the 1979 Islamic revolution. They tend to be more politically and theologically uncompromising than most clerics.

"The sensitivity is not about transferring power from the clergy to others, [it] is because of the shift from the clergy to the military," says Sayed Reza Boraie, a cleric in Qom who was influential in the early years of the revolution.

"The political atmosphere is moving toward militarism," says Mujtaba Lotfi, a critic imprisoned in 2004, who is close to Iran's most influential dissident, Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri. "If there is a referral of Iran's nuclear program to the United Nations, we forecast a physical confrontation."

EU-Iran nuke talks resume Dec. 21

But so far, Iran has been able to forestall that confrontation. Talks with the European Union will resume on Dec. 21 in Vienna. "Tactically, they have been very successful - they have moved the front line," says a European diplomat in Tehran. When talks with the EU stopped last August, Iran began converting uranium for eventual enrichment; widespread criticism eventually died down, with little consequence for Iran.

Enrichment can produce material for use in warheads or fuel for nuclear plants to generate electricity.

"It will be the same with enrichment, if Iran takes that next step," says the diplomat. "After a few months, it will just be part of the picture."

The decision to award the Nobel Peace Prize to ElBaradei sends a clear but indirect message to Iran, however, of the magnitude of its nuclear decisions. The Nobel committee also sent a direct warning to Iran in 2003, when it gave the peace prize to human rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi.

Germany, France, and Britain have suggested shifting Iran's enrichment activities to Russia, where nuclear material would be enriched only to fuel levels and not to weapons grade. But Mr. Aghazadeh said Saturday that a compromise proposal from Moscow to enrich uranium on Russian soil has not been officially presented, and is "seriously flawed."

Still, he added that Iran would not conduct enrichment during the course of next week's EU-Iran talks.

Iran insists on its right as a signatory of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to enrich uranium at home - a position supported by a statement last week from 50 experts of the British American Security Information Council (BASIC), who argue that the US and EU "have to recognize the limits of their influence and threats."

While noting that concern about Iran's program is "fully justified," and that any new nuclear weapons state would be "destabilizing and dangerous," BASIC experts said only a "more constructive and flexible approach" could avert a crisis.

The bottom line is a mutual lack of trust: Of Iran's embattled leadership in the West; and of the US and Europe in Tehran. "Iran can't trust promises by Europeans that it will deliver nuclear fuel," said Aghazadeh. "There is no guarantee that the West will supply us with nuclear fuel."

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