Atul Aneja

The Iranian President's insistence on "staying the course," despite the U.N. Security Council's decision to impose limited sanctions, has come in for harsh domestic criticism.

THE UNANIMOUS vote in the United Nations Security Council to impose limited sanctions on Iran has plunged the country's political, security, and religious establishment into a frenzied debate. Iranians are deeply split on how Security Council Resolution 1737 should be interpreted. Two sharply divergent lines, symptomatic of the growing internal rift, are emerging.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, his key supporters in the Majlis (parliament), and a powerful section of the Revolutionary Guards, the elite defenders of the Revolution, represent one side. They say the United States the ringleader behind the Resolution is misleading Iran and the rest of the world. Washington is creating an impression that Tehran would be punished incrementally if it does not halt uranium enrichment, it is argued. The Americans are also attempting to push certain "facts on the ground," such as warship deployments in the Gulf in order to convince the world that war against Iran is a real possibility.

Mr. Ahmadinejad, in fact, has dismissed the U.N. resolution as a "torn piece of paper." He has maintained that the military threat, visible in the military build-up in the Gulf, was not for combat, but a manifestation of the "psychological warfare" the U.S. was waging against Iran. Iran, he asserted, would also not be hit by the threat of economic sanctions. "The sanction threats will not harm our economy and not isolate us, as even after the U.N. resolution we have signed several deals, but the other side asked us not to disclose them," he said in a recent live interview on the Iranian state television network IRIB.

Mr. Ahmadinejad denied that the boycott by some Western banks would dent Iran's economy. On the contrary, he said, Iran would simply switch its capital to other banks. When the presenter asked him whether he was really not worried about the future of Iran, Mr. Ahmadinejad replied: "No, I am not worried."

The Iranian President's insistence on "staying the course," has come in for harsh domestic criticism. In fact, a new correlation of forces has emerged after Mr. Ahmadinejad's supporters were trounced in the December elections to the Assembly of Experts. In these polls, the former President, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, emerged triumphant. Following these elections, the moderate conservatives loyal to Mr. Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami the former reformist President have formed a coalition to counter Mr. Ahmadinejad's perceived slide towards extremism. The 86-member Assembly of Experts is a powerful institution as it is mandated to supervise the functioning of the Supreme Leader the most powerful individual in the Iranian political system.

Mr. Rafsanjani has stepped up his criticism of Mr. Ahmadinejad in recent weeks. Hoping to defeat Mr. Ahmadinejad's line quickly, he has drawn in the Supreme Leader into the debate saying Mr. Ahmadinejad's perceptions were out of line with Ayatollah Khamenei's thinking on the current situation. According to the Iranian website Baztab, Mr. Rafsanjani on January 24 told 100 Majlis deputies: "Some time ago, together with a number of high-ranking officials, we met with leader of the Islamic Republic Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. During the meeting someone said that the existing threats are not serious and there is no need to be worried. Responding to him, Ayatollah Khamenei underlined that the threats are serious."

Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki has also contradicted the President's assessment. Addressing lawmakers in parliament on January 23, he said: "The U.S. threats are more serious and far graver than mere psychological and propaganda campaign." Responding to queries by deputies, he acknowledged that, "It is possible that attacks, limited or extensive, take place."

Alarmed by the overhanging threats, a section of the clergy has counselled Mr. Ahmadinejad to consider course correction. An editorial on January 9 in the influential Jomhouri-ye Eslami, which is close to the seminaries in Qom, made several critical observations on Mr. Ahmadinejad's handling of the nuclear issue. The newspaper exhorted the President to let professionals handle Iran's nuclear dossier. "In your speeches in various cities, you mention in particular certain important decisions regarding the nuclear dossier, which were made without the necessary thought and planning... One day you announce the installation of 3,000 centrifuges, and several days later [the installation of] 60,000 centrifuges... It seems to us that [these] speeches are not well thought-out, and that there is no precise calculation behind them."

With more sanctions in the offing after the Security Council reconvenes on February 23, the domestic debate in Iran over the issue is likely to assume sharper focus. Having proved earlier that they have the ability to carry out nuclear enrichment on their own, it is likely that the Iranians will carefully deliberate on whether halting enrichment for some time would be a realistic possibility to ward off the deepening crisis that has hit their shores.