Is there actually something promising happening in this whole Iran nuclear drama? A number of recent indications suggest that Iranian President Ahmadinejad is in trouble, and his uncompromising stance on the nuclear program is being questioned within Iran.

If Ahmadinejad continues to make his own mistakes, will the West have waited out, perhaps unintentionally, Iran’s unyielding position on the nuclear program? These domestic rumblings suggest that even in pursuing a grand bargain with Iran (as has been suggested by several experts) it may be best to take it slow. A real negotiation could do without Ahmadinejad’s ultimatums and exclamations.

First there was the election in December where Ahmadinejad supporters lost to more moderate candidates. Also in December, students protested during Ahmadinejad’s speech at Amir Kabir University. Last week BBC reported that 50 Iranian MPs signed a letter calling for Ahmadinejad to answer questions on the nuclear program, and 150 members blamed him for economic problems.

Newspapers (one run by an aide to Larijani, the other owned by Khameni) have published editorials criticizing Ahmadinejad on the nuclear issue:

Ahmadinejad has brushed off the UN resolution as “a piece of torn paper,” and during trips to the provinces he has vowed to expand the nuclear program.

The daily Hamshahri, run by the Larijani aide, wrote that Ahmadinejad’s defiant rhetoric undermined the efforts of negotiators when they were close to ending the crisis.

The daily Jomhouri Elsami, which belongs to Khamenei, said the nuclear case required its own diplomacy requiring “sometimes toughness and sometimes flexibility.”

“The resolution is certainly harmful for the country,” the paper said, adding that it is “too much to call it a piece of torn paper.”

AP reports that the daily economic situation has worsened: “prices of fruit, vegetables and food staples have skyrocketed since the United Nations Security Council imposed limited sanctions on Iran in December.” Iranian businessmen have called for “moderation in the country’s nuclear policies to prevent further damage to the economy.”

In addition to public and economic criticism, high level leaders are voicing disapproval. While supporting Iran’s right for a nuclear program, Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri openly criticized Ahmadinejad’s tactics. NYT notes that this is the first time such a high ranking cleric has directly attacked Ahmadinejad’s policies.

“One has to deal with the enemy with wisdom,” [Montazeri] said. “We should not provoke the enemy, otherwise the country will be faced with problems.

“We should get our right in a way that it does not create problems or excuses for others,” he said.

“Besides, is this our only irrefutable right and we have no other rights?” he asked, referring to rising inflation since Mr. Ahmadinejad took office over a year ago.

Ayatollah Khamenei may also be looking to restrain Ahmadinejad and his confrontational approach.

Alarmed by mounting US pressure and United Nations sanctions, officials close to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei favour the appointment of a more moderate team for international negotiations on the supervision of its nuclear facilities.

The move would be a snub to the bellicose president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose threats to destroy Israel have left Iran increasingly isolated and facing a serious economic downturn.

Tehran sources said the impetus for a policy switch was coming from Khamenei, who has ultimate power over Iran’s foreign policy, security and armed forces.

Khamenei is said to believe that Washington’s aim is not only to halt Iran’s nuclear programme but to overthrow the regime.

Although this evidence is not enough to conclude that there are changes coming in Iranian policy, there appear to be important shifts happening in Iranian discussion.

Yet it is not clear what is responsible for the new tone. It could be the measured sanctions which pressure without alienating all of Iran’s leadership. Or it could be the threat of regime change looming from the US. Or the key explanation could be domestic- inflation, a failing economy, a leader who made too many promises and now takes too many expensive trips. There are also other kinds of US pressure -such as the detainment of Iranian agents in Iraq and the deployment of a second US carrier to the Gulf- which could play a role.

Of course there could be a combination of factors explanation. I generally dislike the “everything but the kitchen sink” approach, but in this case it is likely that each of these factors is at least somewhat relevant, even if not a central cause.

Factors, explanations … the making of what will be a great case study one day. Let’s just hope it’s one for “why do states abstain from nuclear weapons,” rather than that other sort.