For nations seeking to restrict Iran’s pursuit of nuclear technology, Vida Asgari has a question: if others can do it, why not us?
“Why should only powerful countries have it?” said Asgari, a 44-year-old sales assistant in a Tehran bookshop. “If it’s peaceful, it’s our right and we should stand up for it.”
The charge of double standards is echoed across a range of Iranian opinion as the Islamic republic’s leaders prepare for nuclear talks with the U.S. and other world powers. It’s voiced by domestic critics of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as well as his supporters, and used by some to justify the development of nuclear weapons capability as well as power plants.
The negotiations, starting in Istanbul tomorrow, take place amid threats by Israel and the U.S. to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities. The U.S. and allies accuse Iran of secretly developing the capacity to make an atomic bomb, while Iran says its nuclear program is peaceful. Curbs imposed by Western nations on oil purchases from Iran have helped push crude prices up 12 percent this year.
As a signatory to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Iran’s nuclear facilities are under supervision from the United Nations atomic watchdog and it is entitled to carry out uranium enrichment work on its soil for use as fuel in nuclear reactors. Uranium enriched to a high concentration can set off the chain reaction seen in a nuclear explosion.
Five of the six countries joining the talks with Iran in Istanbul -- the U.S., U.K., France, Russia and China -- have atomic weapons, while Germany runs nuclear power plants. Germany shuttered more than a quarter of its nuclear capacity after the Fukushima disaster in Japan last March and plans to complete an exit by 2022.
“If they say they want to cancel the nuclear threat, then why don’t they start with their own nuclear weapons and clean themselves up first?” said Hamid-Reza Shadai, a 33-year-old electrical technician. “Iran has never attacked another country. The U.S., Israel and western countries have launched wars out of self-interest.”
Iranians are quick to make the comparison with Israel, which like Pakistan and India, other nuclear states in the region, hasn’t signed the NPT. Israel hasn’t acknowledged having nuclear weapons.
The International Atomic Energy Agency in a November report cited “credible” intelligence that Iran worked on nuclear- weapon components until at least 2010, an allegation Iran has dismissed, saying the evidence was faked. “Iran has never been after nuclear weapons and never will be,” Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on Feb. 22, describing possession of such weapons as “unnecessary, harmful and dangerous.”
It may make sense for Iran to use nuclear technology to deter other countries, as well as for generating electricity and medical research, said Hossein Ghazari, a political science student.
“Iran won’t build weapons but why not have the capability?” the 22-year-old Ghazari said. “None of those who have it have used it, apart from the U.S. They have it as a deterrent force, and that’s strength.”
Ahmadinejad and other Iranian leaders have said Israel is not a legitimate state and will not survive. Such rhetoric doesn’t equate to aggressive intent in foreign policy, said Payam, a 40-year-old piano teacher.
“I don’t think they want to build nuclear weapons and attack other countries,” said Payam, who like some others interviewed declined to be identified by his surname citing the topic’s sensitivity. “The government is reasonable enough to know that we don’t have enough power and it wouldn’t bode well for us.”
Iran stands to benefit financially from its first nuclear reactor, the 1,000-megawatt Bushehr plant, according to the World Nuclear Association. It will free up the equivalent of 11 million barrels of oil or 1.8 billion cubic meters of gas per year for export, the London-based group said in a March report.
The Russian-built facility is yet to generate electricity at full capacity. Operations were delayed after Bushehr’s computer systems and its centrifuges were targeted by a computer virus some technology experts say may have been created to sabotage Iran’s uranium-enrichment. Iran has accused Israel and the U.S. of being behind the sabotage as well as the killing of Iranian nuclear scientists.
Under Ahmadinejad, who started the first of his two consecutive terms in 2005, the Islamic Republic has increasingly portrayed its nuclear program as a question of national pride and independence. That struck a chord among many Iranians proud of the country’s imperial past and its 2,500-year history.
Yet some critics accuse the government of mismanaging the tensions over its nuclear program, hurting the economy. Though support for the program is difficult to gauge, it may have decreased in recent years after the government’s crackdown on protests in 2009 and the economic hardship caused by stricter sanctions. The currency has plunged and local analysts say inflation is higher than the official figure of 21.5 percent.
A poll conducted by the state-run Iranian Students Polling Agency in Tehran in 2010 found 22 percent of respondents saying the government had handled the nuclear issue successfully, down from 45 percent two years earlier. More recent figures weren’t available from ISPA.
“In a developed and stable country, if you do confidence- building and have good relations with other countries, it should be possible to have nuclear energy,” said Shahram, who runs a pharmacy on Vali-Asr Avenue. The current government, at odds with much of the world, doesn’t meet those criteria, he said. While Iran has the right to nuclear technology, “the conditions need to be right.”
Some Iranians admit to skepticism about their government while also blaming the U.S. and its western allies for presenting a one-dimensional view of Iran and whipping up hysteria over its nuclear program.
“It’s in their interest to portray Iran like this,” said Mehdi, a shopkeeper in northern Tehran. “It was the same thing during the Cold War.” Still, he said, Iran should back down because “the nuclear issue is in the hands of the great powers. We’re entering a game in which we don’t have the necessary capacity.”
For Yousef Kazemi, an interior decorator who fought in the eight-year war against Iraq in the 1980s, the U.S. focus on nuclear weapons is motivated by dislike of the Islamic Republic and desire to foment unrest among its people.
“They want to create an issue and say Iranians have a problem with their regime,” said Kazemi, standing in front of a bakery with a stack of lavash, an Iranian flatbread, folded under his arm. Iranians must be left to decide such matters themselves, he said. “It’s like when you want to marry a woman. People may keep coming to you and saying she’s no good for you. But you think she’s the one.”
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