Mr. Ahmadinejad responded with defiance, announcing that Iran would build 10 new plants to process uranium. On Friday, other Iranian officials said Iran needs 20 new plants and would give the IAEA only six months’ warning before starting up such facilities.
Mr. Clawson and other Iran specialists downplayed the threats as “bombast,” noting that Iran has yet to finish either of its two known enrichment facilities and lacks enough indigenous uranium to fuel additional plants.
While Iran is known for abrupt policy changes and may still agree to a deal, Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said he doubted that any government led by Ayatollah Khamenei and Mr. Ahmadinejad - and backed by a generation of military men who came of age during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war - would risk accommodation with the United States, especially at a time of continuing domestic upheaval following the disputed June 12 presidential election.
“Enmity toward the United States is a fundamental pillar of the revolution,” Mr. Sadjadpour said. “Their default position is always defiance.”
He added that elder statesmen with experience in dealing with the West, such as former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, have been sidelined and that “no one in this current group is capable of dealmaking.”
While some specialists see Ayatollah Khamenei as increasingly beholden to security forces, Mr. Sadjadpour said he thinks the supreme leader is still in charge to the extent that anyone is. He noted that the ayatollah appoints the leaders of the Revolutionary Guards and paramilitary Basij and replaces them every few years to prevent them from building independent power bases. The ayatollah also endorsed Mr. Ahmadinejad and is close to Mr. Larijani, the parliament speaker.
However, the leader has lost support among many Iranian clerics who openly question his continued ability to rule. And while the regime has arrested hundreds of opponents, it appears to fear moving against the top opposition leaders, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, who ran against Mr. Ahmadinejad in June and are both former regime insiders. New protests are expected Monday on Iranian campuses to mark “National Student Day,” previously a regime-backed event.
In a speech Nov. 25 to members of the Basij, Ayatollah Khamenei demonstrated the depth of his distrust of the West and his fears about growing internal divisions.
He said Iran’s enemies tried and failed in the 1980s to overturn the Islamic republic by supporting Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war. Now, he said, the priority is “soft war; meaning a war using cultural tools, infiltration, lies, rumor-mongering.”
“They use advanced tools that exist today, communications tools that did not exist 10, 15, 30 years ago,” he said.
The ayatollah said Iran’s enemies had exploited the outcome of the elections and appealed to Iranians to “stand together against those few people who are fundamentally opposed to the revolution, who are fundamentally opposed to the country’s independence.” At the same time, he said, Iranian media and politicians should not be so quick to condemn others and deepen divisions.
“Careful attention must be made to judgment; recklessness in passing judgment will bring with it injury and great peril,” he said.