The Jitters in Tehran

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Raheb Homavandi / Reuters

Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

Although you wouldn't know it listening the bellicose rhetoric of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran's leadership has the jitters. While the President this week stayed on message, proclaiming that "our nation is swiftly on track to becoming a superpower," anxiety over the possibility of a military confrontation with the U.S. in Iraq and further damage to Iran's international position has the country's leaders locked in sober, closed-door consultations. And Tehran's most influential businessmen are again debating whether to transfer their assets abroad. Says political analyst Saeed Laylaz: "At the highest levels of the regime, the situation today is being taken very, very seriously."

Escalating tensions with the U.S. are sufficiently worrisome that former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani is once again leading a drive to contain Ahmadinejad and his political ambitions. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who heads the executive branch in Iran's system, asked Rafsanjani — who was beaten by Ahmadinejad in the last presidential election — to spearhead a similar effort last year, after Ahmadinejad's remarks about Israel sparked an international outcry. That intervention was late and ineffective, but this time Rafsanjani is moving more quickly and aggressively to defuse tensions with the West. The former president has been meeting with MPs critical of the President, and issued a terse and rare reprimand after a recent presidential speech. Official and semi-official media have joined the effort to curb Ahmadinejad, with two prominent newspapers in the past month running editorials critical of the President, calling his foreign policy obtuse and ordering him to stay out of diplomacy over the country's nuclear program. Even Baztab, the conservative news website connected with Mohsen Rezai, former Revolutionary Guard commander and current secretary of the powerful Expediency Council, is running analyses of U.S.-Iran relations with headlines such as "How to prevent confrontation between the lion and the eagle."

Even more revealing than the skittish media and internal political maneuvering, analysts here say, is Tehran's muted response to the U.S. military's detention of Iranian security officials in Iraq, and the raid on its official liaison office in Erbil. Both acts might have provoked a harsher response were Tehran more confident that Washington's confrontational rhetoric was meant only to intimidate. Former president Mohammad Khatami, viewed here as a valuable interlocutor in dealing with the United States, attended a session with Senator Bob Kerrey at the World Economic Summit in Davos — under normal circumstances such a meeting would leave radicals here livid.

With the United States resistant to opening talks with Tehran over Iraq and the nuclear issue, Iran's leaders are divided over what to concede in their attempts to head off a potential clash. The country's response to the U.N. Security Council's Feb. 20 deadline to cease uranium enrichment will be the first real test of whether Iran will blink. But even if officials here are increasingly anxious about the approaching deadline and rising tension with Washington, ordinary Iranians — mostly relying for information on newspapers that downplay the crisis — feel secure. "America has already shown in Iraq that it can't do anything," say Jaleh Momeni, a 26-year-old secretary in Tehran. "They don't dare attack us."