Iranians Defend Nuclear Rights

Many citizens say their nation, like others, is entitled to pursue energy -- or even arms.

By John Daniszewski

Los Angeles Times

March 7, 2006

TEHRAN — Asadollah Habari did not vote for conservative President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and does not see himself as an ideological hard-liner.

But when it comes to Iran's standoff with the West over its nuclear enrichment program, this worker sides with his government.

"I am not that fundamentalist, but I love my country," says Habari, a 31-year-old publishing company employee, chain-smoking in Tehran's Mellat Park recently, as he gazed at the spectacularly white Elburz Mountains.

"We don't like being accused by America or any other country. There are all these countries developing nuclear power: India, Pakistan and Israel. Why don't the Americans threaten them?"

Habari represents a strong strain of opinion here: nationalism mixed with a feeling that Iran too often has been treated as an exception to the rules of international relations.

It is a sentiment encouraged by the government to justify its position in an upcoming face-off with the United Nations Security Council, which meets next week to consider possible sanctions against Iran.

Unless there is an abrupt change in Iran's stance, the board of governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency, which convened Monday in Vienna, is expected to reaffirm its decision last month to hand the Iran dossier to the Security Council.

The agency's director-general, Mohamed ElBaradei, urged all parties Monday to continue negotiations.

"The only solution I see is a comprehensive, political agreement that covers the nuclear issues, security issues, economic and political issues," ElBaradei said to reporters. "These are all interrelated … and the earlier that we get all concerned parties back to the negotiating table, the better we are able to find a durable solution."

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei V. Lavrov will meet with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in Washington today to discuss Moscow's negotiations with Iran about a proposal to enrich the Persian Gulf nation's uranium on Russian soil, among other issues.

If sanctions are imposed on Iran, many people here in the Islamic Republic will blame Washington more than their own leaders.

Along the sculpture-lined stone paths of Mellat Park, a green oasis in this traffic-clogged megalopolis, much of the conversation focused on what would happen to Iran if no diplomatic solution was reached in the dispute over its decision to conduct limited nuclear enrichment.

The nuclear issue has been dominating the front pages of the scores of Iranian daily newspapers on sale at kiosks along nearby Vali Asr boulevard, which passersby stop to read, if not always buy. "Iran Will Stand by Rights" and "IAEA Is Politically Motivated," some of the headlines blare.

As a good-faith measure after its vote to report Iran to the Security Council, the agency's board of governors asked Iran to suspend all uranium enrichment activities. Iran refused to do so and proceeded to test equipment at a pilot plant.

Iran says its nuclear program is peaceful and that it is merely doing what other countries do in the course of developing civilian nuclear energy. Uranium must be enriched to be used for fuel in a reactor. At higher enrichment levels, it can be used in a bomb.

Some polls here have suggested that more than 80% of the public supports Iran's decision to use its right under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to conduct nuclear research and enrich uranium for civilian nuclear purposes, which is all the government says it has in mind.

Mohammed Peyro, 76, a retired bazaar merchant, said he could not understand Washington's desire to restrict Iran, which he saw as an attempt to keep Tehran from acquiring civilian nuclear power to augment its oil and gas resources.

"If America is such a rich country, they should be good and help the weaker countries," he said. "But its language is always aggressive toward the weaker countries."

People like Peyro and Habari appear mostly unaware of the details of the West's suspicions about Iran's possible military aims, which are based on what the IAEA regards as a lack of full cooperation in its inquiries and the discovery that Iran had hidden its nuclear activities for 18 years.

The press here has not had a full-fledged debate on the pros and cons of Iran's nuclear program, and at least one editor complained of pressure from the government to prevent a full airing of views on the topic.

With reformers vanquished in the last presidential and parliamentary elections, there is little public dissent in the mass media.

Nevertheless, some people are worried that the government's nuclear ambitions are a waste of resources that could better be used to improve people's lives.

"If you ask me, there is no need from here to create nuclear power, especially if it is going to cause us problems," said Dana Nearan, 23, a street artist and student originally from Esfahan, home to a nuclear enrichment plant.

"We are behind schedule for computers, and I do not think we are capable of competing with the West in nuclear."

Morteza Mohammedi, 28, a taxi driver struggling to support his wife, Fatima, 24, and their 7-month-old child, said he thought most people he met were worried that the nuclear issue would cause a confrontation that would harm the country's economy.

"If it was the time of Khatami, he could easily solve this problem by making a deal," he said of the former president, Mohammad Khatami. "But this government always wants to have its way and is pushy." As a result, he complained, "we do not feel any security for the future or see any signs of stability."

But Fatima Mohammedi said she did not agree.

Although she too was worried about the future, she thought Iran should be allowed to have nuclear energy. "You should not say, 'No, you should not have it,' " she said. "Many other countries have had such a program before us."

Two sisters walking hand in hand nearby had similar views. Parasa, 21, an accounting student, said she wanted Iran to have "good progress," and her sister, Reyhaneh, 15, said Iran was being singled out for its "past mistakes."

"Why should you have [nuclear capacity] and not us?" asked Parasa, who wore a colorful head scarf.

"Even if you are talking about nuclear weapons, all other countries can have them, but when you come to us you say no," she added. "Iran is not less than the other countries of the world, and America cannot do a damn thing against Iran. Iran can achieve anything it likes and it is going ahead."

Times staff writer Alissa J. Rubin in Vienna contributed to this report.