- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 26, 2011

VIENNA — Iran’s president wants to shed the nation’s secrecy and forge ahead openly with developing nuclear weapons but is opposed by the clerical leadership, which is worried about international reaction to such a move, says an intelligence assessment shared with the Associated Press.

That view, from a nation with traditionally reliable intelligence from the region, cannot be confirmed and contrasts with assessments by other countries that view Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as relatively moderate on the nuclear issue compared to the country’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Attempts to interpret Iran’s goals are important because as it expands uranium enrichment, it is moving closer to being able to make a nuclear weapon, even as it asserts that it is not interested in such arms and its programs are geared only to making reactor fuel.

A U.S. official cited one assessment he has seen suggesting Mr. Ahmadinejad may be more “moderate” — more open to talks with the international community on resolving nuclear concerns than Mr. Khamenei. He asked for anonymity because his information was privileged.

But a blunt comment by Mr. Ahmadinejad last month raises questions. While repeating that Iran does not want nuclear arms, he openly reinforced its ability to make them, telling Iranian state TV that “if we want to make a bomb, we are not afraid of anybody.”

That defiant statement fits the scenario laid down by the intelligence assessment shared with the AP, depicting Mr. Ahmadinejad as wanting to move publicly to develop a nuclear program.

Mr. Ahmadinejad is pushing “to shake free of the restraints Iran has imposed upon itself, and openly push forward to create a nuclear bomb,” says the assessment.

But Mr. Khamenei, whose word is final on nuclear and other issues, “wants to progress using secret channels, due to concern about a severe response from the West,” says the report.

The varying views reflect the difficulties that intelligence agencies face when probing a secretive nation. Lines of division are murky. Alliances shift and positions change, leaving governments and private analysts frustrated as they try to nail down Tehran’s nuclear end game.

They converge, however, in noting that recent political divisions between Mr. Ahmadinejad and Mr. Khamenei have spilled over to encompass Iran’s nuclear activities to a greater degree than before.

While much about Iran’s nuclear program is opaque, the growing capacity — if not the intention — to make weapons is on the record, captured in International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reports documenting the expansion of Iran’s enrichment program from its clandestine beginnings more than a decade ago to one that has produced enough material for more than two nuclear bombs.

More recently Iran has begun enriching uranium to higher levels that would lessen the time needed to make weapons-grade material. And its stonewalling of an IAEA probe based on U.S. and other intelligence of secret work on components of a nuclear weapons program is adding to concerns raised by Tehran’s refusal to freeze enrichment despite U.N. sanctions.

“They claim that all of their activities are for peaceful purposes,” IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano told the AP. “But we have information that might have military implications and there are other activities that we don’t know well, so it is difficult for us to draw a conclusion it is exclusively for peaceful purposes.”

Intelligence reports of tensions between Mr. Ahmadinejad and the ruling clerics are in line with other signs showing Mr. Ahmadinejad at odds with Mr. Khamenei with less than two years to go into his presidency.

In recent months, Mr. Ahmadinejad apparently fired — and was forced by Mr. Khamenei to reinstate — his interior minister in what some analysts see as a rebuffed attempt by the president to eliminate rivals to candidates he would like to see in positions of power, once his second and last term ends in 2013.

That prompted an outburst of public criticism and led rivals in parliament to start proceedings that could in the most extreme case lead to impeachment.

Reports of disagreement on nuclear issues predate that dispute, but some officials from member nations of the Vienna-based IAEA see tensions over the future of the nuclear program sharpening.

Proliferation expert David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security says his briefings from European government officials who have seen the latest U.S. intelligence assessment on the Islamic republic seem to support the assessment shared with the AP that Mr. Khamenei is worried about how the world would react to a nuclear-armed Iran.

“There is a lot of caution in the regime about the implication of building nuclear weapons,” says Mr. Albright.

The leadership is “worried about starting a nuclear weapons race and worried about the international impact,” said Mr. Albright, naming reactions from regional powers Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey as that of greatest concern to Tehran.

Both Egypt and the Saudis have indicated that they would contemplate acquiring nuclear weapons if Iran had them.

One theory voiced by government officials and private analysts is that Iran might be looking to reach the level just short of making nuclear weapons — but able to do so quickly if it feels threatened.

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