Even for a country that prides itself on its revolutionary credentials, Iran has been unusually bellicose in recent weeks, rejecting a nuclear deal it had earlier appeared to embrace and threatening to build new uranium-enrichment plants in defiance of international restrictions.
One reason, Iran specialists say, is that the embattled regime fears showing weakness in the face of persistent domestic political opposition and rising foreign pressure. Some even question whether supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Shi’ite Muslim cleric chosen to lead the country 20 years ago, is still in charge.
Ayatollah Khamenei may instead now be subordinate to the Revolutionary Guards and other paramilitary forces that keep his government afloat.
Patrick Clawson, an Iran specialist at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the country’s decision-making abilities appear paralyzed. That may be why Iran has so far failed to follow through with a deal it accepted in principle in October to transfer nuclear materials to Russia and France for further processing.
The deal would have relieved pressure for new sanctions against Iran by reducing the likelihood that it could produce nuclear weapons in the near future. But the accord became the object of political infighting in Tehran as soon as it was revealed.
Last week, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared that Iran would build 10 new enrichment plants and produce its own fuel for medical purposes, increasing the concentration of a uranium isotope from 3.5 percent - the current level of Iran’s stockpile - to 20 percent. Weapons-grade uranium must be enriched to more than 80 percent of the explosive isotope known as U-235.
The Iranian president had earlier defended the idea of sending out more than 70 percent of Iran’s stockpile as a victory for Iran, because it would have allowed the country to continue to make low-enriched uranium. Opponents of Mr. Ahmadinejad, including parliament Speaker Ali Larijani, warned, however, that outsiders could not be trusted to fulfill their part of the bargain.
“They are not all reading from the same script anymore,” said Mehrzad Boroujerdi, an Iran specialist at Syracuse University. While the Islamic republic is notoriously fractious, Mr. Boroujerdi said he had not seen “this level of chaos in the higher levels of power in Iran in quite some time.”
A senior U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the press, credited the Obama administration’s policy of outreach to Iran with creating some of those fissures.
“The Obama strategy has generated a real debate in Iran over nuclear issues,” he said.
Saeed Jalili, the nuclear negotiator who tentatively accepted the nuclear deal in October, “was the supreme leader’s man and Ahmadinejad’s direct emissary,” the U.S. official said.
The debate that erupted afterward reflects “a crack in the core” of the regime, the official added.
The official said that the U.S. still hopes that Iran will compromise and that its recent behavior could be a bargaining tactic meant to show that Iran will not bow to foreign pressures.
Those pressures are mounting.
Late last month, the board of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) harshly criticized Iran for building a secret uranium-enrichment plant and failing to cooperate fully with the U.N. nuclear watchdog. Russia and China joined the censure and a new U.N. Security Council resolution against Iran is likely early next year.