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The Iranian government announced Wednesday that it has 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 president has sought to take closer control of Iran's nuclear negotiations with the UN But he has faced a backlash from critics, including top conservatives in the regime, who say his tough stances rejecting compromise have only deepened the country's troubles.
The charges appear to be Ahmadinejad's retaliation in the infighting - an attempt to push back against pressure to soften his nuclear policies and to discredit his growing political opposition.
If so, his ultimate target on both fronts is likely his most powerful rival, former president Hashemi Rafsanjani, who is believed to seek a more moderate stance.
Rafsanjani has emerged as a leader of Iranian conservatives who once supported Ahmadinejad but have grown disillusioned and have increasingly spoken out against his policies in public. Rafsanjani represents a particular political threat to Ahmadinejad because he has some influence with Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has ultimate say over all issues, including the nuclear file.
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 warning many saw as a volley against Rafsanjani's camp and other opponents, such as the more liberal reformists.
Intelligence Minister Gholam Hossein Mohseni Ejehi on Wednesday 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 semi-official Mehr news agency reported. The agency did not identify the spokesman.
In his speech Monday, Ahmadinejad appeared to refer to Mousavian - though he didn't name him - accusing him of urging the West to take a tough stance against Teheran 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 in 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.
Mousavian 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 replaced it with a team led by Ali Larijani. But Larijani, who reportedly came to be at odds with the president, abruptly resigned last month and was replaced by a close Ahmadinejad loyalist. The replacement appeared to be an attempt by Ahmadinejad to exert greater control over the nuclear issue.
Last month, Mousavian's former boss - Khatami's top nuclear negotiator Hasan Rowhani, a Rafsanjani ally who is himself an influential figure in Iran's clerical leadership - issued a blistering public criticism of Ahmadinejad, accusing him of making more enemies for Iran with his policies.
The president has already faced increasing public complaints that he has failed to fix Iran's ailing economy, which has seen high inflation and 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 Teheran University. He called the charges "politically motivated" aimed at silencing critics.
The political battles come as Iran faces a new attempt by the United States to seek further UN sanctions for Teheran's refusal to suspend uranium enrichment. Washington and its allies accuse Iran of seeking to develop nuclear weapons, a charge Teheran denies, saying its nuclear program is merely geared towards generating electricity.
Iran on Tuesday met a key demand of the UN nuclear agency, 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."
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