- The Washington Times - Monday, February 26, 2007

TEHRAN — Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad faced a new round of sharp criticism at home yesterday after he said Iran’s nuclear program is an unstoppable train without brakes, language opponents say only inflames the West as it considers further sanctions.

In London, the United States and five other world powers agreed to begin work on a new U.N. Security Council resolution over Iran’s refusal to suspend its nuclear program, but they remained committed to seeking a negotiated solution, British officials said.

The domestic criticism of the hard-line Iranian president came amid signs that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is growing discontented with Mr. Ahmadinejad.

Last week, the ayatollah voiced rare criticism of the domestic record of Mr. Ahmadinejad’s government, and the president was notably absent when a group of Cabinet members and vice presidents met recently with the Shi’ite cleric, who has the final word in all political affairs in Iran, including the nuclear issue.

The Bush administration has taken a more aggressive stance toward Iran, building up the U.S. military presence in the Gulf and accusing Tehran of backing militants in Iraq. That has increased fears among Iranians of possible U.S. military action.

But on the eve of the London gathering, Mr. Ahmadinejad again struck a defiant tone, telling a group of clerics Sunday, “The train of the Iranian nation is without brakes and a rear gear.”

Those comments brought a hail of condemnations in Iran yesterday, not only from reformists who have long opposed Mr. Ahmadinejad, but also from conservatives who once backed him but now see his fiery rhetoric as needlessly provoking the West into confrontation.

The conservative daily Resalat chided Mr. Ahmadinejad, saying “neither weakness nor unnecessarily offensive language is acceptable in foreign policy.”

“Our foreign policy must reflect the ancient Iranian civilization and rich Islamic culture of the Iranian nation,” the newspaper said.

Few details emerged from the London meeting of the United States and its partners — France, Britain, Russia, China and Germany — but State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said they would hold talks by phone Thursday “at which time they hope to be able to hammer out the elements of a U.N. sanctions resolution.”

U.S. officials have been pressing for strong action against Tehran but have run into opposition, notably from Russia, over how tough a line to take.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Moscow was “worried that the forecasts and suppositions of a possible attack on Iran have become more frequent.”

Mr. Ahmadinejad’s critics have grown more vocal since his allies suffered a humiliating defeat in local elections in December. That vote was swept by reformist parties and anti-Ahmadinejad conservatives who said the president has spent too much time castigating the West and has neglected Iran’s faltering economy.

The president appeared to have toned down his rhetoric in the past few weeks, insisting Iran would not give up its nuclear program but using a more moderate tone and expressing a desire to negotiate with the West.

Iranian political analyst Iraj Jamshidi said it appeared “the top leadership has cautioned him about his remarks,” but he added that Mr. Ahmadinejad’s tough rhetoric “is part of his personality.”

Iran denies U.S. and Western claims that it is secretly trying to develop nuclear weapons, and the country’s political factions have long been united in their stance that Iran has a right to a peaceful nuclear energy program. So far, the criticism of the president has focused on his confrontational tone — though some reformers have gone further, saying Iran should be more willing to consider at least a temporary suspension of the nuclear program.

At the same time, Mr. Ahmadinejad’s top political rival, Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, has emerged as a high-level advocate of a more conciliatory stance toward the West, saying the nuclear dispute needs to be resolved through “dialogue and wisdom.”

Mr. Rafsanjani, a top figure in Iran’s clerical leadership, lost to Mr. Ahmadinejad in the 2005 election, but Mr. Rafsanjani’s allies were among those swept to victory in the December local elections.


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