TEHRAN, Iran, (AP) – Iran’s government announced yesterday it charged a former senior nuclear negotiator with passing classified information to the West in a move apparently aimed at silencing domestic opponents of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The hard-line leader has sought to take closer control of Iran’s nuclear negotiations with the U.N. But he has faced a backlash from critics, including top conservatives in the regime, who say his tough stance rejecting compromise has deepened the country’s troubles.
The charges appear to be Ahmadinejad’s retaliation in the infighting — an attempt to push back against pressure for a softer nuclear policy and to discredit his growing political opposition.
If so, his top target is likely his most powerful rival, ex-president Hashemi Rafsanjani, who is believed to seek a more moderate stance. He has emerged as a leader of conservatives who once supported Ahmadinejad but have increasingly gone public with their disenchantment with government policies.
Rafsanjani represents a particular political threat because he has some influence with Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has ultimate say over all issues, including the nuclear program.
The former nuclear negotiator who has been charged, Hossein Mousavian, is close to Rafsanjani.
The announcement of the charges came two days after Ahmadinejad branded critics of his handling of the nuclear issue as “traitors” and warned he would take action against them — a threat many saw as a volley at Rafsanjani’s camp and other opponents, such as more liberal reformists.
Intelligence Minister Gholam Hossein Mohseni Ejehi accused Mousavian of passing classified information to foreigners, including the British Embassy. He did not specify the information.
“His crime from the viewpoint of the Intelligence Ministry is obvious and provable,” Ejehi said, adding that Mousavian had been informed of the charges, according to the official news agency IRNA.
A spokesman for the Iranian judiciary said Mousavian faced “security” charges, but did not elaborate, though he said they did not include espionage, the semiofficial Mehr news agency reported. The agency did not identify the spokesman.
In his speech Monday, Ahmadinejad appeared to refer to Mousavian without using his name — accusing an official of urging the West to take a tough stance against Tehran on the nuclear issue.
“We even have a recorded speech of one of them telling the enemy: ‘Why should you give up? … Step up pressures to make them (Iran) retreat,'” Ahmadinejad said.
Mousavian was briefly detained last May, though the reason at the time was not announced. There was no word on when Mousavian, who is free on bail, would actually be put on trial.
He served in the nuclear negotiating team under Ahmadinejad’s predecessor, reformist president Mohamad Khatami. Ahmadinejad removed the team when he came to power in 2005, accusing it of making too many compromises.
Ahmadinejad installed a new team led by Ali Larijani. But Larijani, who reportedly fell out with the president, abruptly resigned last month and was replaced by a close Ahmadinejad loyalist.
The switch appeared to be an attempt by Ahmadinejad to exert greater control over the nuclear issue, but the move further emboldened critics.
Last month, Mousavian’s former boss — Hasan Rowhani, Khatami’s top nuclear negotiator and a Rafsanjani ally who is himself an influential figure in Iran’s clerical leadership — issued a blistering public criticism, accusing Ahmadinejad of making more enemies for Iran.
Rafsanjani issued a veiled criticism of Ahmadinejad last week, saying Iranian officials must “avoid immaturity and not cause trouble for the people.”
The president already was facing increased public complaints that he has failed to fix Iran’s ailing economy, which is saddled with high inflation and high unemployment.
“Ahmadinejad is showing no signs of toleration towards criticism. Instead of responding to his critics, he wants to defame them and depict them as traitors,” said Sadeq Zibakalam, a professor of political science at Tehran University.
He called the charges against Mousavian a “politically motivated” attempt to silence critics.
The political battles come as Iran faces a new push by the United States and its allies for further U.N. sanctions on Iran over its refusal to suspend uranium enrichment. They accuse Iran of seeking to develop nuclear weapons, a charge Tehran denies, saying its nuclear program is geared toward generating electricity.
Iran on Tuesday met a key demand of the U.N. nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, by delivering blueprints that show how to mold uranium metal into the shape of warheads, an apparent concession meant to stave off new sanctions.
Iranian political analyst Saeed Leilaz said he believed the decision to hand over the blueprints likely came from Khamenei, influenced by Rafsanjani.
“Ahmadinejad is seeking a policy of confrontation with the West. He is opposed to cooperating with the IAEA or giving any concessions,” Leilaz said. “Khamenei has apparently accepted calls from Rafsanjani, Khatami and others that it is better for Iran to show cooperation with the IAEA to avoid confrontation.”