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Iranian factions struggle over nuclear policy control

Bush asks answer to offer in July

CAIRO -- An offer by the United States and five other powers to end the nuclear impasse with Tehran has ignited a struggle within the Iranian regime over who will control its nuclear policy.

Two major competing camps in Iran are pursuing different strategies for dealing with internal pressure. One faction is led by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and other hard liners who prefer confrontation with the West. Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a two-time Iranian president and leading pragmatist, is heading the other camp. He and others have urged negotiations with Europe and even Washington.

The offer was drafted by Germany and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council: the United States, Britain, France, Russia, and China. It provides financial and trade incentives for Iran to suspend its uranium enrichment, a process that can produce fuel for nuclear reactors or material for bombs. If Iran rejects the deal, it could face economic sanctions or even military action.

Iran has not responded to the offer, which European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana presented June 6 . Analysts say hard liners want to reject the proposal outright, while pragmatists led by Rafsanjani want to accept it and seek changes. A third faction wants Tehran to offer a counterproposal, but the United States and European powers are unlikely to entertain that idea.

The Bush administration is already accusing Iran of dragging its feet and has asked for an answer by mid-July, when world leaders hold a summit in Moscow.

But even if the pragmatic faction wins the internal struggle, analysts do not expect a straightforward ``yes" from Tehran. Instead, the regime is likely to try finding ways to avoid suspending its enrichment program.

Iran insists that all of its activities are legal, and that it wants to develop technology for nuclear energy, not weapons. But the United States and Europe say Tehran is secretly developing an arms program.

The true levers of power in Iran rest with a group of unelected clerics, especially the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Analysts say he is nurturing both factions.

Khamenei is under pressure from hard-line clerics to reject the deal. ``The package they [world powers] have presented is good for them. It is not good for Iran," Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, a senior cleric close to Khamenei, said in a Friday sermon broadcast nationally.

Pragmatists recognize Iran is in an excellent position: the price of oil is at record levels, and Tehran's Shia Muslim allies have taken control of the government in neighboring Iraq.

To make the deal possible, the Bush administration agreed last month to join talks if Tehran suspended its uranium enrichment. That could open the door for broader dialogue between Iran and the United States, which cut off ties in 1979 after Iranians stormed the US embassy in Tehran and took 52 hostages.

After denying the Holocaust and calling for the destruction of Israel, Ahmadinejad has isolated himself from the West. He also filled Iran's nuclear negotiations team with hard liners and accelerated atomic research.

Rafsanjani's camp feels that Ahmadinejad should defer to Iran's elder statesmen on relations with the West and nuclear talks. But Ahmadinejad has shown little sign of bowing to leaders of Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution, such as Rafsanjani.

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