Iran: nuclear standoff leaves clerics on the sidelines

It also was a lesson in who is advising and guiding Iran's theocrats at one the most critical periods since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

The ranks of ayatollahs and lesser clerics - the unofficial braintrust of the Islamic regime - find themselves increasingly sidelined as Iran's priorities rapidly shift from internal confrontations with pro-reform groups to geo-political brinksmanship. The theocracy is now tuned to other voices, who speak the language of technology and strategy: nuclear engineers, international negotiators and military planners led by the Revolutionary Guard.

The result, experts say, is a split personality by the nation's leadership, the AP reports.

Iran's all-powerful religious cadre, headed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has allowed a far more complex and pragmatic foreign policy - one that's even sent signals of the possibility of direct talks with the United States after a nearly 27-year diplomatic freeze, the AP reports.

But at home, rank-and-file clerics still hold considerable sway. The election last year of arch-conservative President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad gave hard-liners a direct pipeline to government and parliament, including strong influence over a headline-grabbing bill to encourage Islamic-style clothing.

That's felt most strongly in Qom, about 130 kilometers (80 miles) southwest of Tehran, whose seminarians and mosques were nerve centers of the revolution and continued as key advisers under the concept of "valeyat-e-faqih," or rule by Islamic jurisprudence.

But Iran's leaders are not seeking the clerics' advice on the international nuclear showdown. In a stunning role reversal, the clerics instead have sat through lectures by political affairs analysts and nuclear experts on what's best for the nation.