Ahmadinejad, in a speech on November 12 at Tehran's Science and Technology University, denounced what he called "traitors" to Iran's nuclear program. He threatened to name and shame these critics unless they end pressure to change Iran's nuclear policy. The harshness of his attack points up a serious rift within the establishment about how Ahmadinejad's hard line is driving Iran into international isolation.
Given the heinous connotations of the word "traitor" and the traditional fate that awaits traitors, the accusations were grave. And consequences have followed swiftly. Iran's Intelligence Ministry announced today that Hossein Musavian, a former senior nuclear negotiator, had been charged with passing classified information to foreigners, including the British Embassy, the semi-official Fars news agency reported.
In recent weeks, Musavian had appeared to be part of a rising wave of internal criticism aimed at the president's handling of nuclear policy. Some of it has come from traditional dissidents such as students, journalists, and former leaders of the Islamic Revolution who have long since turned critical, such as the Freedom Movement of Iran.
More significantly, however, mounting opposition to Ahmadinejad's nuclear policy has appeared to emanate from former senior officials such as Musavian, former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Ahmadinejad's predecessor, Mohammad Khatami, as well as Hassan Rohani, head of Khatami's nuclear negotiating team.
Radio Farda, citing Iranian media reports, has quoted Ahmadinejad as suggesting in his speech that internal critics were encouraging the West to intensify their sanctions on Iran. He offered no names or proof, but said, "these are traitors, and on the basis of the pact we have made with the [Iranian] people, we will not retreat and sit by and watch." If they do not stop, he added, he would reveal their identities to the nation.
The first name revealed, it appears, is Musavian. "The world community wants Iran to employ moderates in the [nuclear] negotiations," Hassan Fathi, a Tehran-based pro-reform journalist, told Radio Farda on November 12. "If Mr. Ahmadinejad claims to want to name names, then in the final analysis the clues lead to these [above-cited] individuals, who time and again, in both blunt and subtle ways, have made clear their [negative] assessment of the current nuclear policy."
Policy's Style, Substance Criticized
Analysts say their criticism focuses both on the style and substance of Ahmadinejad's nuclear negotiating strategy. They say that from reformers such as Khatami to traditional conservatives such as Rafsanjani, there is a belief that Iran must tone down the fiery, provocative rhetoric heard from Ahmadinejad, but also must strive for compromise in its nuclear talks -- one that can satisfy Washington but also save face for Tehran.
The latest inside critic to voice concern is Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, the powerful conservative mayor of Tehran who is seen as a likely contender in the 2009 presidential elections.
In remarks reported by Iranian media on November 13, Qalibaf called for more "maturity and intelligence" in Iran's foreign policy, and warned the government to act more prudently amid rising tensions over the Iranian nuclear program.
"Government officials must pay attention to the grave situation where Iran finds itself on the international scene," Qalibaf said, one day after British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, for the first time, publicly floated the idea of imposing sanctions on Iran's oil industry.
A traditional conservative, Qalibaf likes to portray himself as a technocrat who works with people across the political spectrum. "We could have achieved our objectives for a lesser cost," he said. "We do not need to impose an additional cost on society, because of certain methods and declarations, to reach the just demands of the people."
There has been high-level exasperation over Ahmadinejad's brushing-off of UN sanctions as "pieces of paper" and his refusal to acknowledge a possible U.S. military attack. Rafsanjani, contradicting the president, has said the threat of a U.S. strike "exists and is very serious." The powerful former Revolutionary Guards commander Mohsen Rezai has also said the threats of Iran's foes should not be taken as "jokes".
In a speech On October 10, Rohani offered his own revelatory critique. He said Iran now faces more international threats than ever before. And he criticized what he called the failure of Iranian diplomacy on the nuclear issue, saying that to succeed in diplomacy means preventing enemies from becoming allies with other countries -- an apparent reference to recent moves by Germany, France, and even China to more directly confront Iran over its nuclear program.
A similar criticism came from Mohsen Mirdamadi, the head of the reformist Islamic Participation Front. Mirdamadi, apparently referring to Ahmadinejad's nuclear policies, cautioned that "dangers" could arise due to "alarming" and "adventurist" behavior. His remarks on October 26 came after the United States imposed unilateral sanctions on major Iranian banks as well as on the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps and its elite Quds Force, which it labeled as a terrorist organization.
Another key sign of discord over the nuclear policy came when the head of the nuclear negotiating team, Ali Larijani, resigned suddenly in mid-October without giving a plausible reason.
Showing his disapproval with the change, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei immediately assigned Larijani to be his personal representative to the international nuclear talks. Also, a group of reform parliamentarians sent a letter to Ahmadinejad, saying he should have acted with "more tolerance and thought" rather than replacing Larijani at such a critical moment in Iran's negotiations with the world community.
Ahmadinejad replaced Larijani with a close ally, Said Jalali, prompting concerns abroad that the Iranian negotiating line would turn even harder. Pro-reform journalist Fathi says internal Iranian critics believe that such a change will not lead to success.
"We should accept the fact that the international community would never give us a concession unless it gets a concession from us [in return]," he says. "If we imagine that without giving a concession we could gain a concession, we either are not familiar with the international diplomatic process or we are under the impression that we are the world's superpower and everyone should pay us tribute."
In a final note of dissent, the Freedom Movement, which is made up of former leaders of the 1979 revolution who turned critical of it, issued an extraordinary statement on its website calling for an overhaul of Tehran's nuclear negotiations. In a clear reference to Ahmadinejad, the November 13 statement urged Iranian leaders to refrain from "provocative comments" and to take external "military, economic, and political threats" very seriously.
"All criticism or action that is not in line [with the government], and which is made at all levels of society, is suppressed by using the label 'insurrection,'" the statement said. "But [officials] are unaware of one basic point, and that is that the source of the disease and cure lie in themselves: They themselves are providing the pretext of their downfall or insurrection, yet they don't know it."
(Radio Farda's Mosaddegh Katouzian contributed to this report.)