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Iranian President Hits Back Over Domestic Nuclear Criticism

Ali Akbar Velayati (left) with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
TEHRAN -- President Mahmud Ahmadinejad hit back at a senior adviser to Iran's top authority who had criticized his "provocative" speeches about the country's nuclear work, which the West says is a cover to build bombs.

Ali Akbar Velayati, who is close to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, expressed unusual public criticism by telling an Iranian daily this month the government should be more careful when speaking about the nuclear issue.

Velayati, foreign-affairs adviser to Khamenei, did not mention the president by name but he clearly meant Ahmadinejad.

Ahmadinejad's riposte reflects what some analysts see as a dispute over tactics about how to handle the nuclear issue, with hard-liners backing Ahmadinejad's uncompromising approach toward the West and others saying he is further isolating Iran.

But such debate rarely comes out in the open between senior politicians. Officials, speaking openly and privately, insist there is no difference in the broader strategy on continuing Iran's nuclear plans without any halt.

"Velayati is a respected man. Like everyone else in Iran, he is free to have personal views.... But he is not involved in nuclear decision making," Ahmadinejad said in comments carried by the "Mardomsalari" newspaper.

Moderate politicians and even some of Ahmadinejad's conservative opponents say his speeches on the nuclear issue have exacerbated Iran's isolation.

But Khamenei, who has the last word on nuclear policy, has praised Ahmadinejad for his handling of nuclear matters.

Velayati has said it is in Iran's interest to continue talks over a package of economic and other incentives proposed by world powers to coax Iran to suspend nuclear work the West fears is aimed making bombs. Tehran denies the charge.

No Rift

Tehran has so far rejected a halt to its uranium-enrichment work, but says it is ready to continue nuclear talks with major powers over the package. Velayati did not support suspension in his comments despite calling for more negotiations.

Ahmadinejad said there was no rift between him and the leader over Iran's nuclear strategy.

"Our nuclear path is clear. The government is responsible of the nuclear issue. We manage the issue based on the leader's views," Ahmadinejad said.

Some foreign media had reported that the leader was unhappy with Ahmadinejad's policies, including nuclear.

But Ahmadinejad last week denied any differences with the leader, saying, "We laugh together about such reports."

Western diplomats say the powers -- the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and China -- have conditionally offered to hold preliminary talks ahead of formal discussions.

But first, the big powers say Tehran must freeze any expansion of its nuclear program in return for the UN Security Council halting further sanctions measures.

EU foreign-policy chief Javier Solana will meet Iran's top nuclear negotiator Saeiid Jalili in Geneva on July 19.