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Iran president still fiery in twilight of term

Sunday - 2/10/2013, 1:40pm  ET

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, speaks under portraits of the late Ayatollah Khomeini, left, and Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei during an annual rally commemorating the anniversary of the 1979 Islamic revolution, which toppled the late pro-U.S. Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, in Azadi Square, Tehran, Iran, Sunday, Feb. 10, 2013. In his statements to the rally, Ahmadinejad said he is ready to have direct talks with United States if the West stops pressuring his country. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

BRIAN MURPHY
Associated Press

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) -- There was nothing essentially new in the message to Washington from Iran's president on Sunday: Repeating last week's statement by the Iranian supreme leader that direct talks cannot happen as long as sanctions remain.

What drew attention was how Mahmoud Ahmadinejad injected himself into it.

Ahmadinejad told crowds marking the anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution that he personally was ready to take part in one-on-one dialogue with the U.S. if Western economic pressures were eased. Even in the twilight of his presidency, Ahmadinejad's political ego remains as intact as ever -- suggesting both a feisty prelude to June elections and efforts by Ahmadinejad to seek the spotlight after his second and final term.

While he was careful not to contradict Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the offer to represent Iran in possible future dialogue -- whether real or rhetorical -- was an indirect slap and suggests no easing of a political feud between Ahmadinejad and the ruling clerics. The supreme leader, not the president, oversees all critical matters of state, including picking envoys for international talks and setting policy toward Washington.

Iran's political skirmishes pose no direct threat to the ruling system, but have become so much of a distraction that Khamenei has made a rare appeal for all sides to lower the tensions.

It's gone widely unheeded. Ahmadinejad has even warned against attempts to "engineer" the June elections. It's a reference to the powerful Revolutionary Guard and its plans to take an active role in the campaigning, but also a paradoxical swipe since Ahmadinejad's re-election four years ago touched off enormous chaos over claims of vote rigging.

By most reckoning, Ahmadinejad should be limping into his final months.

His political capital has been sharply drained in a doomed bid to challenge Khamenei as the sole gatekeeper for all key policies and decisions. Key allies have been either arrested or politically neutralized over nearly two years. Last week, Ahmadinejad was publicly rebuked in parliament after trying to disgrace Speaker Ali Larijani -- a longtime rival -- with a purportedly secret videotape allegedly exposing corruption within the Larijani clan.

"Very ugly," said Ahmadinejad after being lectured by Larijani about political ethics and then curtly dismissed from the chamber.

Yet every time Ahmadinejad has been rattled, he's managed to regain his footing.

His resilience will now encounter even tougher tests. Khamenei and the ruling theocracy are expected to block Ahmadinejad's protege Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei from being on the June 14 ballot to pick his successor. This means that Ahmadinejad -- with less to lose -- may fight harder for political relevance in the coming months and lash back stronger at his critics.

At the same time, it appears increasingly likely that Ahmadinejad will try to position himself for some kind of political influence after his leaves office. He has given few hints of his post-presidency incarnation, but his showdowns with the ruling system suggest he will be forced to carve out his own fate.

His speech Sunday -- his last revolution anniversary rally as president -- showed his refusal to even acknowledge his lame duck status.

"You pull away the gun from the face of the Iranian nation, I myself will enter the talks with you," Ahmadinejad said in a message to the U.S.

The pronoun, not the statement, was what brought notice.

Khamenei said basically the same thing on Thursday -- even using the gun analogy -- in response to proposals from the White House for direct U.S. talks over Iran's nuclear program. Khamenei's declaration put the brakes on any momentum for breakthrough dialogue with Washington, which broke ties with Tehran after militants stormed the U.S. Embassy in the wake of the Islamic Revolution and fifty-two Americans were held hostage for 444 days.

But despite the statements, Iran is still set for some dialogue: nuclear talks with world powers including the U.S. are scheduled to resume Feb. 26.

"Talks are better than conflict," said Ahmadinejad at the anniversary ceremony, speaking under towering images of Khamenei and the revolution's leader, the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. "But it has its own formula. Talks are for improving integrity and cooperation, not for imposing the viewpoint," of one side on the other one.

He also repeated Iran's frequent pledge that it will not halt its nuclear activities -- which include uranium enrichment -- due to Western pressure. The West and its allies fear Iran's ability to make nuclear fuel could eventually lead to weapons-grade material for atomic weapons. Iran insists it only seeks to run reactors for energy and medical applications.

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