Iran's moderates are intensifying criticism of hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, landing their first blows in a bitter political fight ahead of elections next year.
The moderate heavyweights Mohammad Khatami and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani have been unusually explicit in their criticism of Ahmadinejad's economic policies and his analysis of the threat posed by the US.
Ahmadinejad has shot back using language colorful even by his standards, warning he would expose "traitors" in the nuclear standoff and accusing critics of "being less intelligent than a goat."
The sharp rhetoric is the upshot of concerns over the mounting international crisis over the Iranian nuclear program and a sign of the proximity of legislative elections on March 14.
There is exasperation among moderates over Ahmadinejad's brushing-off of UN sanctions action as just "pieces of paper" and his refusal to even countenance the possibility of a US military attack.
Mohammad Atrianfar, a confidant of Rafsanjani, said the explicit criticism had been triggered by the degree of concern among moderates about the state of the country under Ahmadinejad.
"Rafsanjani is genuinely worried," the leading newspaper editor said. "He was a leader in the [1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war] he knows what war means and what price people have to pay."
"Ahmadinejad does not have a true idea about reality. He has no sense of fear. He thinks that if he adopts radical positions, his rivals will step back. The attacks are set to multiply ahead of the elections," he said.
The attacks are coming from a mix of reformists, moderates and more pragmatic conservatives:
* Khatami, president from 1997-2005, is an unashamed reformist who until recently refrained from making public criticism of the government. But in the last month he has accused it of "ignorance and lack of expertise" and sounded the alarm over its economic policies, saying inflation was a growing problem which government statistics were trying to conceal.
* Rafsanjani, president from 1989-1997 but humiliated by Ahmadinejad in the 2005 vote, has also stepped up criticism of the president's confidence that the US will not attack. The cleric, who now heads two powerful elite bodies, said the danger from the US "exists and is very serious," a flat contradiction of Ahmadinejad's position.
* Tehran Mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, a pragmatic conservative seen as a possible presidential contender, on Tuesday made his most explicit criticism yet of the government, saying officials had to act with "more maturity, intelligence and cunning as it seems that that situation is going to become more sensitive."