Why Ahmadinejad is eager to show off new Iran nuclear facilities

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad could boost his sagging political standing at home by wrapping himself in the mantle of the Iran nuclear program, which is popular with Iranians. He is set to unveil new facilities Wednesday.

Morteza Nikoubazl/Reuters
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad gestures while speaking last week at the 25th International Islamic Unity Conference in Tehran. The Iranian President is set to unveil a new nuclear facility on Wednesday, in what analysts say is an attempt to boost his flagging popularity.

Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad plans to unveil several new nuclear facilities Wednesday during ceremonies aimed at boosting his sagging domestic political fortunes, but the move is likely to further intensify international tensions over Iran’s nuclear program.

The facilities could include a line of uranium-enriching centrifuges at the new underground Fardo nuclear site, according to international nuclear experts.

New facilities that suggest Iran is accelerating the rate at which it is building up its stockpile of enriched uranium could increase tensions in a number of ways, experts say. World powers hoping to restart talks with Iran over its nuclear program may conclude that Iran has opted for enrichment over negotiations, and Israel could conclude that its window for attacking Iran before it has stockpiled enough fuel to build a bomb is closing faster than it
 thought.

The Fardo plant, built deep inside a mountain near the city of Qom, is of concern to Israeli officials who warn that Iran's nuclear program could be nearing a point of “invulnerability.” Such expressions of concern have led to speculation that Israel is preparing to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities.

If Wednesday’s ceremonies include a formal ribbon-cutting at the Fardo facility, it would come just as Iran and Israel are waging a heated retaliatory battle over recent small-scale bombings aimed at Israeli diplomatic personnel. Israel accuses Iran of carrying out the bombings, in India, Georgia, and Wednesday in Bangkok. Iran countercharges that Israel itself carried out the ultimately failed attacks, so as to have something to pin on Iran.

The Iranian accusation strains credulity even further after Wednesday’s Bangkok bombing, for which two Iranian suspects were detained – one after he accidentally blew off his own legs with a hand grenade.

The spate of bombings – which so far have killed no one – occurs about a month after the most recent in a string of killings of Iranian nuclear scientists. Iran accuses Israel of carrying out those assassinations and vowed in January to avenge them.

Israel has said nothing about the Iranian nuclear scientists. Iranian officials have charged that operatives of a radical Iranian dissident group, which they say were trained by Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service, carried out the killings. Some US officials have privately confirmed a close working relationship between the Israelis and the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran, but representatives of the Iranian exile group insist there is no truth to the Iranian government’s accusations.

Despite the intensifying standoff over Iran’s nuclear program, any nuclear-facility ribbon-cuttings like those Mr. Ahmadinejad plans for Wednesday are aimed less at a nervous world and more at the Iranian public, say most Iran experts. Iranians go to the polls in parliamentary elections March 2.

Ahmadinejad has lost so much favor with Iranians that even his efforts to associate himself with the country’s broadly supported nuclear program aren’t likely to make a difference, some experts insist.

“Ahmadinejad has no chance; his political life is over,” says Mehdi Khalaji, an expert on Iranian politics and Shiite Islam at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy Studies.

But others say Ahmadinejad, who is in his second term and is ineligible to stand for another, is nonetheless campaigning for a good showing by his backers in the March parliamentary elections, with the hope of presenting a pro-Ahmadinejad candidate in next year’s presidential elections.

Ahmadinejad's aim is to tap into the pride that many Iranians feel about the country’s nuclear program. In announcing Wednesday’s events, Iran's official government website said the new nuclear facilities would “show the world the extraordinary capability and knowledge of Iranians.”

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