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Iran: Too divided for nuclear deal?

Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
Khamenei could approve the deal but comments have not been conciliatory

By Roger Hardy
BBC Middle East analyst

As international pressure mounts on Iran over its nuclear programme, there are signs that political divisions are hampering its ability to make a deal.

The mood music is not very upbeat.

Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has said the country will not be dictated to - and there can be no dialogue if the United States is the wolf and Iran is the sheep.

The US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has warned the Iranians not to use delaying tactics. They must accept the deal put forward in October, she declared, adding that it would not be changed.

Under the deal, Iran would send its low-enriched uranium to Russia for further processing. This is seen as a necessary confidence-building measure.

Iranian officials initially favoured the proposal, but then seem to have had second thoughts.

Political football

So why is Iran blowing hot and cold?

Reading the opaque currents of Iranian politics is never easy.

Those, not least in Washington, who have mistrusted Iran all along have been quick to accuse it of negotiating in bad faith.

Bushehr nuclear power plant, Iran (file image)

But an alternative explanation is that the regime has been taken aback by the strength of criticism the proposed deal has aroused at home.

The issue has become a political football.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad badly needs to boost his legitimacy, after winning a second term in elections in June which many Iranians believe were rigged.

One way to do this is to claim victory over the West on the nuclear issue.

But, equally, his opponents - on both wings of the political spectrum - want to use the issue to weaken him.

Mir Hossein Mousavi, the president's principal rival in the elections and now the leader of the main opposition movement, has warned against any deal being struck at the opposition's expense.

Criticism has come from the conservative camp, too, with accusations that the president has caved in to Western pressure.

The heat of the debate seems to have rattled the regime.

Should it accept the deal, reject it or - despite Mrs Clinton's warning - try to renegotiate it?

Squabbling factions

The man who must decide is the Supreme Leader.

If he were to approve the deal, that would probably silence the squabbling factions.

The logic of this approach is clear.

At a time when the regime is under severe pressure both at home and abroad, a deal would defuse the pressure coming from the West - and stave off the prospect of further sanctions.

But the Leader's latest statement is scarcely conciliatory.

His remark about the sheep and the wolf is a quotation from the father of the Islamic revolution, the late Ayatollah Khomeini.

The clear implication is that if you converse with a wolf it will devour you.

The Supreme Leader, like the president, has been personally damaged by the crisis of legitimacy of the past five months - the most serious in the 30-year life of the Islamic Republic.

This might make him especially sensitive to the charge that he is making concessions to the West.

The outcome remains unclear. But it is possible that Iran's internal divisions are now so acute that it is unable to achieve a consensus on an issue of such magnitude.



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