Iran Leader Claims Win in Nuke Faceoff

The Associated Press
Thursday, December 6, 2007; 2:33 AM

TEHRAN, Iran -- President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Wednesday called the dramatic U.S. turnaround in a new intelligence review a victory for Iran's nuclear program, suggesting it shows the success of his hard-line stance rejecting compromise.

But his more moderate opponents at home are hoping the assessment's conclusion that Tehran shelved its effort to develop atomic weapons will boost a diplomatic resolution of the nuclear stand-off with the West.

The political rivalry in Tehran could have important implications for what happens next in the dispute over Iran's nuclear program, now that the report has likely weakened two of the threats Washington held over Iran _ more U.N. sanctions and the possibility of military action.

In past months, Ahmadinejad has faced a rising challenge from a more moderate camp centered around his top rival, former president Hashemi Rafsanjani. Rafsanjani's allies have increasingly criticized Ahmadinejad for his hard-line positions, saying they are creating enemies for Iran in the West. Ahmadinejad has lashed backed, branding his critics "traitors."

The head of the U.N. atomic watchdog agency said Wednesday that Iran had been "somewhat vindicated" by the U.S. review, and expressed hopes it would give a push to negotiations.

"I see this report as a window of opportunity," Mohamed ElBaradei of the International Atomic Energy Agency said. "It's a window of opportunity because it gives diplomacy a new chance."

Ahmadinejad touted the assessment as a vindication for his refusal to cave in to the West's demands that Iran suspend uranium enrichment and allow a monitoring program to ensure its nuclear facilities aren't used to produce atomic weapons.

He told a crowd of thousands in the western province of Ilam that the U.S. report was a "declaration of victory for the Iranian nation against the world powers over the nuclear issue."

"Thanks to your resistance, a fatal shot was fired at the dreams of ill-wishers, and the truthfulness of the Iranian nation was once again proved by the ill-wishers themselves," Ahmadinejad said, drawing celebratory whistles from the crowd.

The report concluded Iran halted a nuclear weapons design program in late 2003 and said there was no evidence it had resumed. That was a dramatic change from a 2005 assessment saying Iran was actively trying to build a nuclear bomb.

Iran denies ever having a weapons program, saying its nuclear work is aimed at using nuclear reactors to generate electricity.

Tehran has pushed ahead with uranium enrichment despite U.N. Security Council demands it suspend the process, which can be used to produce fuel for nuclear reactors but also material for nuclear warheads.

The U.S. report could provide breathing room for Ahmadinejad by easing Iranians' worries about a third round of U.N. sanctions or a war with the West. Popular support for the president has eroded over the past year, mainly because of Iran's economic troubles but also from fears he was leading Iran into a worse confrontation.

Political analyst Davoud Hermidas Bavand said Ahmadinejad and his allies "can now claim they stood up to the West, resumed uranium enrichment and made the world recognize Iran as a country possessing nuclear technology _ then were finally given a clean bill of health by the archenemy, the U.S."

"Everywhere he goes, Ahmadinejad will claim this is an outright victory for his government. Moderates, in the short term, won't be given a chance to claim victory," Bavand said.

But Iran's more favorable position may in large part be due to gains by moderates in Tehran. In recent months, Iran handed over confidential documents to the IAEA about its past enrichment activities and answered other questions about its nuclear program. Soon after, the IAEA issued a report saying Iran had been generally truthful about its past enrichment activities.

Many Iranian analysts believe supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has ultimate say on the nuclear program and all other issues, ordered the cooperation, perhaps influenced by Rafsanjani, a powerful cleric in Iran's political leadership.

Political analyst Saeed Leilaz called the U.S. report a "victory for moderate voices such as Rafsanjani who have been pushing for compromise and diplomacy," citing as an example what he called "extensive cooperation" with the IAEA.

He also noted events in Iraq, where U.S. commanders say Iranian hard-liners appear to have reduced support for Shiite militias. "While Ahmadinejad has been talking tough, Iran has helped stop attacks in Iraq that has led to a decline in U.S. death tolls," he said.

Leilaz said that points to a movement by Iran and the U.S. away from confrontation. "And it has been achieved thanks to moderate voices within the two countries," he said.

Iran already stands to win diplomatic gains from the report. Its allies, Russia and China, appear even less likely to back a new round of U.N. sanctions. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Wednesday there was no proof Iran ever had a weapons program, as claimed in the U.S. report.

ElBaradei said the U.S. report offered "ample opportunity" for international negotiations with Iran so a middle ground can be found to ensure Tehran does not pursue a weapons program in the future.

Much will depend on whether Iran continues cooperation with the IAEA or takes a tougher position, emboldened by the U.S. report _ and that decision will likely come from Khamenei, who often tries to balance between Iran's rival political factions.

Tehran also remains under pressure from its own allies to find a solution with the U.N. and suspend its enrichment program.

Lavrov said Russia "supports Iran's determination" to cooperate with the IAEA, and noted Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier this week urged Iran's top nuclear negotiator to answer all IAEA questions and halt enrichment.

© 2007 The Associated Press