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Ruling clerics in Tehran face mounting pressure Rebuked at home by student protesters, worldwide for their nuclear ambitions

Rebuked at home by student protesters, worldwide for their nuclear ambitions

WASHINGTON

's increasingly beleaguered ruling theocracy faced renewed pressure at home and abroad yesterday as antigovernment protests gained support and Tehran's controversial nuclear program was assailed.

The International Atomic Energy Agency and the European Union demanded that Tehran come clean concerning its ambitions, echoing the White House, which believes the ruling clerics are seeking nuclear weapons capabilities.

In the Iranian capital, swelling week-long, pro-democracy protests -- the largest since the 1979 revolution -- were bolstered by nearly 250 academics and writers who published a statement yesterday challenging the divine infallibility of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The joint statement represented a significant challenge to the ruling clerics.

In the past, those who dared make similar statements have been arrested or beaten.

"We've offered our support, our encouragement and we made clear what side we stand on," U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said, although the White House insists the unrest in Tehran is entirely domestic and that aside from a torrent of radio broadcasts, Washington is not financially aiding the pro-democracy movement.

Tehran's Foreign Ministry lashed back, accusing Washington of "blatant interference" in Iran's internal affairs and arguing that "America is waging a psychological war."

According to its official news agency, it also rejected IAEA demands for more intrusive nuclear inspections unless they were accompanied by financial aid.

For Tehran's ruling mullahs, the United States is increasingly a threat.

With U.S. troops now along two of its borders -- in Afghanistan and Iraq -- and pressure for change mounting, the theocracy faces unprecedented threats after mostly failing to deliver prosperity or stability nearly a quarter-century after a popular revolution swept the Shah from power. All but encircled by pro-Western governments, including NATO member Turkey and U.S. ally Pakistan, Iran's hopes of extending its influence throughout central Asia have dwindled.

Ominously for Tehran, one of the most hawkish advisers to U.S. President George W. Bush, Richard Perle, is now openly calling for "regime change" -- the catchphrase that underpinned toppling Saddam Hussein's regime in Baghdad -- although no prominent American has yet called for war against Iran.

"There may be change in Iran because the regime in Iran is miserably unpopular," Mr. Perle said yesterday in Berlin at the German Council on Foreign Relations. "Young Iranians will find better uses for their limited resources than building nuclear power in a country so rich in oil. We can already see signs that Iranians . . . would like to see regime change. They should be encouraged."

Washington also ramped up the pressure, adding credence to reports that North Korea has shipped Iran new, longer-range missiles that could carry nuclear warheads by not denying them.

"I've seen those reports," Mr. Boucher said. "I don't think we have any information I can share with you on that."

Pressure was building on Iran, meanwhile, to fully account for its nuclear program.

In Vienna, Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the IAEA, said "Iran has failed to report certain nuclear material and activities," and called for Tehran to honour its pledges to fully disclose the scope of its nuclear program.

IAEA board members are considering a report from Mr. ElBaradei urging that Tehran agree to the Additional Protocol to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. That protocol, agreed to by most NPT signatories, gives international inspectors wider access and more intrusive, short-notice inspections.

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