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.

Aaron Jackson/AP
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaks at the Millennium Development Goals Summit at the United Nations headquarters in New York, on Sept. 21.

Since his arrival in New York for the United Nations General Assembly, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's flamboyant commentary has kept much of the world fixated on Tehran's controversial nuclear program and external political disputes.

But such tactics have steered public attention away from Iran's more vulnerable concerns, such as the country's shaky economy, a harsh crackdown on journalists and opposition figures, and internal rivalries that could complicate Mr. Ahmadinejad's apparent willingness to relaunch nuclear talks with the West and reconcile with the US after more than 30 years.

"There is a clear effort to appeal to the West, and the point is to initiate the process [for discussions],” says a Tehran-based analyst with close ties to the government who spoke on condition of anonymity for security reasons. “If he manages to do it, that's even a major step. A deal with America ... is the golden trophy in Iranian politics.”

Indeed, the Iranian president softened his rhetoric Tuesday, repeating a call for new talks with the West over Iran's disputed nuclear program.

"We have always been prepared to talk," Ahmadinejad told American reporters over breakfast, according to Politico. "We are prepared now as well and I probably would say there is a good chance that talks will resume in the near future,” he said.

But analysts inside the Islamic Republic say that while the president arrived in New York aiming to restart nuclear talks with the West, he faces strong opposition from much of Iran's conservative establishment.

Ahmadinejad battling conservatives – even in his own camp

Ahmadinejad's administration has throughout the past year been battling Iranian lawmakers within the conservative old guard and even his own Principalist camp for a tighter grip on state finances and policy.

Though a majority of the Iranian Majles, or Parliament, rallied behind the president in the immediate aftermath of the June 2009 presidential elections, legislators have since sought to limit the breadth of Ahmadinejad's domestic power as he has sought to expand his influence over key state institutions, such as the ministries of Intelligence, Interior, and Foreign Affairs.

Most recently, Iranian lawmakers have seriously disputed numerous aspects of his government's plan to disburse $20 billion in funding from cuts in state fuel subsidies before the end of the current Iranian year (ending March 20). The government entity slated to make individual cash payments to Iranian citizens as a countermeasure to the subsidy cuts will not be under the purview of Iran's national budget, thus leaving the methodology of cash distribution with little to no parliamentary oversight.

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.

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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