Sunday, June 26, 2005

Nuke Talks Stance Divides Iran Candidates

Iran's stance in delicate nuclear talks with the West is shaping up as a key issue dividing the two candidates who face each other in Friday's presidential runoff — and U.S. and European officials are watching closely.

It also is a top campaign issue for Iranians themselves, who view the nuclear program as a source of both national pride and worrying tension with the United States and Europe.

Ultraconservative candidate Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the 49-year-old mayor of Tehran, has indicated he will push for a tougher position at the talks if he becomes president. But key nuclear officials have said they'd like to see the country's top job go to Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, 70, a former president with an experienced hand.

The United States accuses Iran of using a peaceful nuclear program as a cover to develop an atomic bomb. Iran maintains its program is peaceful and aimed only at generating electricity.

Ahmadinejad, in comments that drew sharp criticism from the Foreign Ministry, accused Iran's nuclear negotiators Monday of being weak and bowing to European pressure at the negotiation table. He also told a news conference last week he could not foresee improved ties with any country that "seeks hostility" against Iran, a reference to the United States.

Some Ahmadinejad supporters, including the hard-line Students' Islamic Association, want the government to seek nuclear weapons to "deter the United States from threatening or attacking us."

"We've had enough of waiting for Westerners to decide about us," said Mansour Hesami, 37, who has a portrait of Ahmadinejad in his dry cleaning shop. "We have to resume our nuclear activity as soon as possible after Ahmadinejad comes to power."

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