TEHRAN (Reuters) - Despite his hardline image, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad appears to favor a U.N.-drafted nuclear fuel proposal as a way to shore up his own power and legitimacy five months after his disputed re-election.
But he faces stiff opposition from rivals in Iran’s political and clerical elite who would hate to see the abrasive leader reap the credit for a breakthrough with the West.
“The president wants the deal to be sealed. He has redoubled efforts to defuse the nuclear dispute with the West,” said a senior Iranian official, who asked not to be named. “He thinks the deal is in line with Iran’s interests.”
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has proposed that Iran ship most of its low-enriched uranium abroad to be processed and returned for use in a medical research reactor in Tehran — thus calming international fears that the Islamic Republic is seeking nuclear weapons, a charge it denies.
U.S. President Barack Obama and European leaders have said they are losing patience with Iran, which has not officially answered the Western-backed proposal it accepted in principle on October 1. Tehran says it wants amendments and more talks.
Iran could face harsher international sanctions or even Israeli military action if it fails to restore trust in its nuclear goals, which it says are confined to power generation.
The IAEA, the United Nations nuclear watchdog, said in a report Monday that Iran’s belated revelation of a new uranium enrichment site may mean it is hiding further nuclear activity.
Ahmadinejad, whose credibility was bruised by weeks of turmoil after a June 12 election his foes said was rigged, apparently hopes to turn nuclear diplomacy to his advantage, even if it means softening his hitherto combative stance.
“Ahmadinejad is ultimately cautious. He seeks to alleviate the crisis with the West to strengthen his position in Iran and abroad,” said Iranian political analyst Hashem Sedaghati.
The stakes are high for a president under fire not only from conservatives in parliament but also from his moderate election opponents, who had criticized him for antagonizing the world, but who now accuse him of selling out Iran’s nuclear interests.
Parliament speaker Ali Larijani, a former nuclear negotiator and an influential conservative, has called the proposed nuclear compromise an insult — a sentiment that appeals to supporters of the clerical establishment and cannot be contradicted easily.
“Larijani and other so-called conservatives are saying: ‘Why do we have to give up our uranium? What is the good experience we had with Russia and France to give them our uranium?’,” said Iran analyst Mahjoob Zweiri at Jordan University’s Center for Strategic Studies, highlighting the internal debate in Iran.
Public opinion also remains broadly supportive of Larijani, spurred on by local media which focus on the West’s perceived unfair treatment of Iran’s nuclear program.
However, analysts say dissenting voices may emerge if more sanctions are imposed on Iran or military strikes loom.
“Ahmadinejad knows that antagonizing world powers when Iran is in internal crisis and may face fresh sanctions would not serve the country’s interests,” said Sedaghati.
The president, like other senior officials, vigorously supports Iran’s right to build a nuclear industry. But his unwillingness to compromise in the past has led to three sets of sanctions being imposed by the U.N. Security Council.
A senior Western diplomat in the Gulf said Ahmadinejad was keen to “climb into bed with the West” by sealing a nuclear deal, but faced “rhetorical red lines,” making it difficult for him to overcome opposition from jealous domestic rivals.
It is not clear whether how much support Ahmadinejad’s new emphasis on “cooperation, not confrontation” enjoys from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, but most analysts say the change could not have happened without a green light from above.
Khamenei went out on a limb by overtly backing Ahmadinejad in the teeth of mass post-election protests that plunged Iran into its worst upheaval since the 1979 Islamic revolution.
By endorsing the president so firmly, Khamenei may have weakened himself. “He is now stuck with his protege,” argued Tim Ripley, a Middle East expert at Jane’s Defense Weekly.
He questioned whether Ahmadinejad had indeed decided to cut a deal with the West to gain ground in an internal power tussle.
Some viewed the president as a man of wild apocalyptic views ready to provoke a nuclear Armageddon with Israel, others as an ardent nationalist who sees acquiring the atom bomb as a way to build up Iran as a world power, Ripley said.
“There is also a view that he has to use the nuclear thing as a way to perpetuate a crisis and a sense the rest of the world is against Iran so he can portray his opponents as treacherous stooges of the American imperialists,” he said.
Additional reporting and editing by Alistair Lyon