Iran’s Islamic regime found itself under mounting pressure yesterday, condemned abroad for its nuclear program and facing new internal challenges to its authority.
The U.N. watchdog group International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the European Union and Russia joined the Bush administration in demanding that Tehran submit to tougher international inspections to answer questions about its civilian nuclear program, which U.S. officials insist is masking a bid to build nuclear bombs.
Student-led demonstrations against the regime continued into a sixth day yesterday, and about 250 Iranian academics and writers issued a public manifesto challenging the theocracy that has run the country since the 1979 revolution.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher denied Iranian contentions that the United States has secretly organized the protests, which have led to violent clashes on the streets of Tehran and other Iranian cities in recent days.
“The demonstrations are not about the United States. They are about Iran, by Iranians, about Iranian policy,” said Mr. Boucher, adding that the Bush administration has given only rhetorical support to the protesters.
Tehran yesterday accused the United States of “blatant interference” after President Bush cheered the continued pro-democracy student demonstrations, which he said showed that Iranians want freedom, Reuters news agency reported.
IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei, speaking in Vienna, Austria, issued a harsh critique of Iran’s record on cooperation with the agency’s nuclear monitors, calling on Tehran to sign an additional accord under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to allow IAEA inspectors into sites put off-limits by the Iranian regime.
The agency is to hold more meetings about Iran this week and Mr. ElBaradei said there is still a chance that an agreement could be worked out.
Russia and the European Union, which have resisted calls by the Bush administration to isolate Iran, urged Tehran to agree to the more intrusive inspection regime.
EU foreign ministers meeting said Iran’s nuclear program represented a “serious concern,” and that Tehran should “conclude and implement urgently and unconditionally” a new IAEA agreement.
Iran has resisted this, saying its extensive nuclear program is for nonmilitary uses and making any such agreement conditional on international aid for its civilian nuclear program.
But about 78 NPT countries have agreed to the tighter inspections without setting conditions. Mr. Boucher called Tehran’s bargaining demands a “non-starter.”
U.S. pressure in the aftermath of the Iraq war and the continued street protests at home have left the beleaguered Iranian government seeking what Western diplomats call “a survival formula.”
Increasingly short of options, the clerical regime has appealed for the “national and regional unity” of Muslims to oppose U.S. influence, which officials blame for the anti-government demonstrations.
Official statements and government-inspired editorials speak of “foreign plots” regarding the recent unrest, which Western analysts see as frustration with the delay in economic reforms promised by reformist President Mohammed Khatami and with the general political paralysis between reformists and hard-liners.
While the regime of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei thunders against the “American Satan,” a recent opinion poll, commissioned by the country’s reformist-dominated parliament, showed that 74 percent of Iranians favored the resumption of a political and economic dialogue with the United States.
According to one Western diplomatic assessment, the regime has been unable to find any other formula than that of the defense of Islam. Concern about the future of the Islamic Republic has grown since Iran found itself sandwiched between two countries with U.S. influence and military presence: Afghanistan and Iraq.
Some diplomats say that a successful transition to democracy in neighboring Iraq, with its large Shi’ite Muslim population, would have an enormous effect on the Iranian opposition. An estimated 90 percent of Iranians are Shi’ites.
Andrew Borowiec contributed to this article from Nicosia, Cyprus.