Ahmadinejad restrained, but defiant

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The Independent Online

Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad struck a defiant tone on the anniversary of the Islamic Revolution yesterday, telling his people that his country would not give up uranium enrichment but was prepared to talk with the international community.

Conspicuously absent from Mr Ahmadinejad's speech was an expected announcement that Iran had started installing 3,000 centrifuges to enrich uranium at its Natanz plant. The President's relative restraint is widely believed to show the influence of moderate voices within the ruling Islamic establishment telling him not to make provocative statements that could heighten tensions between Iran and the West.

That restraint was not matched in Washington yesterday, where talk focused on a long anticipated briefing blaming weapons and training directed by Tehran for the deaths of US personnel in Iraq. The claims flew in the face of previous admissions by the Bush administration that its case against Iran could not be proved. Less than 10 days ago, the Defence Secretary, Robert Gates, told senators that it could not be said with certainty that Iran was supporting such attacks.

Mr Gates said last Friday: "I don't know how many times the President, Secretary [of State Condoleezza] Rice and I have had to repeat that we have no intention of attacking Iran." But there is suspicion in some quarters that the US may be seeking to provoke an "incident" that would open the way to launch air strikes aimed at destroying Iran's nuclear enrichment programme.

Juan Cole, professor of Middle East history at the University of Michigan and author of a respected political blog, wrote: "The attempt to blame these US deaths on Iran is in my view a black psy-ops operation. The claim is framed as though this was a matter of direct Iranian government transfer to the deadliest guerrillas.

The allegations come just a week after the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), supposedly the collective view of the US intelligence community, said that while "Iranian lethal support for select groups of Iraqi Shia militants clearly intensifies the conflict ... the involvement of these outside actors is not likely to be a major driver of violence ... because of the self-sustaining character of Iraq's internal sectarian dynamics."

Indeed, many commentators have pointed out that Sunni insurgents rather than Shia militias are responsible for most attacks against US forces.

Despite the burning effigies of President Bush and Tony Blair in central Tehran, the annual celebration of the anniversary of the 1979 revolution - the day of dawn - passed peacefully.

For all the ferocity of the rhetoric, with demonstrators chanting: "Death to America! Death to England! Death to Israel!" the mood was relaxed and upbeat.

However, the creeping concern about the heightened level of tension between Iran and the West was apparent.