Iran: ayatollah criticizes Ahmadinejad on nuclear issue

We have noted internal divisions in Iran over the nuclear issue. This story from the Jan. 23 New York Times provides another piece of the puzzle, and greater nuance than the corporate media generally display on the Tehran regime:

TEHRAN — Iran is barring 38 nuclear agency inspectors from entering the country in retaliation for a United Nations resolution aiming to curb Iran’s nuclear program, a senior Iranian lawmaker said Monday.

The announcement came only days after Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, Iran’s most senior dissident cleric, criticized President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s defiant stance against the West on the nuclear issue in a speech on Friday, calling it provocative. His comments were the first direct public attack on the president’s nuclear policy by such a senior cleric.

The two developments suggest an increasingly open debate within Iran over how forcefully to confront the West over Iran’s nuclear ambitions, even as its government continues to defend them.

Two hard-line newspapers, including one owned by the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, have already called for the president to stay out of all nuclear matters. Ayatollah Montazeri said Iran has the right to nuclear technology but questioned the way Mr. Ahmadinejad has confronted the West.

“One has to deal with the enemy with wisdom,” he said. “We should not provoke the enemy, otherwise the country will be faced with problems.

“We should get our right in a way that it does not create problems or excuses for others,” he said.

“Besides, is this our only irrefutable right and we have no other rights?” he asked, referring to rising inflation since Mr. Ahmadinejad took office over a year ago.

Ayatollah Montazeri was once in line to become Iran’s supreme religious leader, until he was banished and put under house arrest for his criticisms. His comments reflect the growing concern in Iran over additional economic sanctions if Iran continues to defy the international demand to halt its uranium enrichment program.

The United Nations Security Council passed a resolution on Dec. 23 and imposed sanctions banning the trade of goods related to Iran’s nuclear program. It also gave Iran a deadline of two months to halt its uranium enrichment program or face tougher sanctions.

In response, Parliament passed a bill last month calling for the government to limit its cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency.

“The committee has decided to bar 38 inspectors from coming to Iran and we have announced the new limitation to the agency,” said Alaedin Boroujerdi, the head of Parliament’s committee for foreign policy and national security, the ISNA news agency reported.

The nuclear agency’s inspectors visit Iran’s nuclear facilities regularly. But last summer Iran said that it had decided not to let some of the inspectors return.

Still, Mr. Boroujerdi said that Iran planned to continue its cooperation with the agency, and that Iran would remain a party to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

An I.A.E.A. spokeswoman, Melissa Flemming, said that the agency was confident that it could continue to monitor Iran’s nuclear program.

“There are a sufficient number of inspectors designated for Iran, and the I.A.E.A. is able to perform its inspection activities in accordance with Iran’s Comprehensive Safeguard Agreement,” she said in an agency statement.

For his part, Mr. Ahmadinejad vowed again on Sunday that Iran would continue with its nuclear program, and brushed off the United Nations resolution as insignificant.

In Brussels on Monday, European Union foreign ministers called for all countries to enforce the sanctions against Iran. The British foreign secretary, Margaret Beckett, said a collective application of the sanctions was essential “to keep pressure on Iran to accept the offer of the international community to come back to the negotiating table.”

European Union officials said they would apply the measures next month, including a ban on selling materials and technology that could be used in Iran’s nuclear and missile programs and the freezing of the assets of 10 Iranian companies and individuals.

Germany’s foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, said it was time to take a tough and united stance on Iran but kept the option of diplomacy open. “There is a need to send a clear signal, and we need to show resolve,” he said.

See our last posts on Iran and nuclear fear.