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Iran Sends Mixed Messages on Nuclear Issue


As another U.N. deadline on Iran's nuclear program passed, Tehran continued to send signals of both defiance and compromise. Meanwhile, the United States and its allies on the nuclear issue remain steadfast in their demand that Tehran suspend uranium enrichment. As VOA correspondent Gary Thomas reports from Washington, Iran is still gauging what it might get in return for concessions on the nuclear issue.

The Bush administration prides itself in staying "on message" - that is, all officials adhere to the same positions and talking points. But in Iran, staying on message seems to be a difficult proposition, especially when it comes to the nuclear issue.

Iranian officials have repeatedly made statements on the nuclear program that sometimes contradict each other, often in subtle ways, and that range from the conciliatory to the harshly defiant. It is the kind of thing that drives Western intelligence analysts crazy - which, some experts say, is exactly what Tehran is counting on.

Bruce Jentleson, a political science professor at Duke University, says the sometimes varying pronouncements coming from Iranian officials can be attributed to both negotiating strategy and domestic political factors.

"One can interpret this in a couple of different ways," he said. "One is a very sophisticated negotiating strategy - that is, 'good cop and bad cop'. Second is that power is distributed within the government in different ways and you are hearing what we might call 'bureaucratic politics' coming through different constituencies that have different views."

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has seen a slip in his political fortunes, as shown by elections in December, and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei is believed to be in poor health. Analysts believe there is intense internal debate in Iranian ruling circles about how to handle the nuclear issue.

The U.S. has been leading the charge to punish Iran for what Washington believes is Tehran's covert pursuit of nuclear weapons capability. Iran vehemently denies this, saying it only seeks peaceful nuclear energy.

State Department spokesman Tom Casey says the U.S. government sees nothing new in the varying statements coming from Iranian officials.

"And so while I'm sure we would all like to see Iran accept the positive pathway given, suspend their enrichment, and return to the negotiating table, I'm afraid that what we're seeing so far, including these recent statements, is just more of the same defiance," he said.

What is interesting, some analysts say, is how Iran has approached dealing with the world on the nuclear issue.

Most countries keep any nuclear work highly secret. But Iran has been publicly vocal about its intention to get peaceful nuclear technology - much more so under the hardline President Ahmadinejad than under his predecessor, Mohammad Khatami.

George Friedman, chief executive officer of the private intelligence firm Stratfor, says Iran knows the United States and Israel would never let Iran get to the point of nuclear weapons. He believes Iran is using the whole nuclear issue as bargaining leverage to expand its regional influence.

"The Iranians are behaving very differently," he said. "They're drawing all the attention they can to the nuclear program, which indicates to me that they're using it as a psychological tool and a bargaining chip, and they're not serious. If they were serious, they wouldn't be sort of telecasting to the world what they're doing."

Friedman says Iran studied very carefully how North Korea dealt with the United States and its allies over its own nuclear program.

"I think the U.S. is now transitioning from where nuclear weapons were the fundamental issue to a kind of new phase where nuclear weapons are now seen as a kind of bearable mix in general," he said.

"We've seen that in North Korea, and I think that we're going to see that to some extent in Iran. But certainly the Iranians know something that the North Koreans taught them: if you want to jerk the American chain, have a nuclear program," he added.

But the difference in the two cases, analysts point out, is that North Korea already has nuclear weapons. Iran is believed to still be about four years or more away from that capability.

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