TEHRAN — A confidant of Iran's top political and religious authority took a veiled swipe at the country's outspoken president in a sign of strain within the leadership over handling international opposition to the Iranian nuclear program.
Ali Akbar Velayati, who serves as the top foreign policy advisor to supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, warned in a newspaper article published Tuesday that Iranian officials must avoid making "provocative" statements, a directive widely believed to be aimed at President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his loyalists.
In another challenge to the president, Velayati also spoke positively about incentives presented last month by European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana on behalf of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany. The proposals were aimed at persuading Iran to stop enriching uranium.
He stopped well short of advocating a suspension of Iran's enrichment program, a particular demand emphasized by the U.S. as a precondition for talks.
"Americans wanted Iran not to accept Solana," Velayati told the hard-line daily newspaper Jomhuri Islami. "Therefore our interests imply that we should embrace Solana."
Velayati's remarks were among the strongest indicators of a split within Iran's opaque leadership circle over how best to handle the standoff with the West and Israel over the country's nuclear program. A media report Tuesday by a news organization close to the pragmatic chair of Iran's Expediency Council, Ahmadinejad rival Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, suggested that Iran might be willing to suspend or curtail uranium enrichment for a six-week period during which negotiations would take place.
Iran says it is enriching uranium for peaceful civilian energy production. Western powers suspect it is building a nuclear weapons program.
In recent weeks, the rhetoric has reached a fever pitch on both sides, with widespread talk of Israel and the U.S. possibly carrying out a preemptive war against Iran and threats of retaliation on Tehran's part if there is a conflict.
Iran's firebrand head of state has repeatedly called for Israel's destruction and ruled out suspension of the uranium enrichment program as the basis for talks with the West.
But Velayati warned Iranian officials to watch their rhetoric while Iran was officially considering the incentives package, which included proposals for economic, political and security cooperation with the West if Iran scaled back key parts of its nuclear program.
Iran's major international opponents "weigh every single word said in nuclear policy and we should be cautious and weigh our words too," he said. "[Iranian] officials, experts and politicians should avoid illogical, provocative statements."
The U.S. and Israel "are seeking a pretext to show the world that Iran does not want negotiation," Velayati said.
"We think now at this juncture, we can negotiate," he said. "We should pay attention . . . keep on negotiating with every single European country."
Ahmadinejad has lowered his international profile recently. Relative moderates such as parliamentary Speaker Ali Larijani and Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki have taken the lead in speaking publicly about the nuclear program.
Velayati and other traditional conservatives within Iran's ruling establishment have previously rebuked Ahmadinejad for his belligerent rhetoric on international affairs and populist rabble-rousing in tours of the provinces.
Ahmadinejad and members of his faction, many of them ideologically passionate veterans of the 1980s Iran-Iraq war and men from humble origins, represent a rising and potentially disruptive force within the political leadership circle, long a bastion of Shiite Muslim clerics, their adjutants and relatives.
Special correspondent Mostaghim reported from Tehran and Times staff writer Daragahi from Beirut.