August 21, 2006


Power and the people: Iran says it wants nuclear energy to fuel its economy. The US says it wants to build an 'Islamic bomb'. But what do Iranians think about the deepening crisis? Given rare access, Simon Tisdall spoke to people on the streets of Tehran - and to the men in charge of the country's nuclear programme (Simon Tisdall, August 21, 2006, The Guardian)

Tehran is a city of elegant parks. And none is more serene than Saee Park, off Vali Asr Avenue, one of the capital's main thoroughfares. Known as the "lovers' park", it is where young and not-so-young couples sit at dusk beneath a canopy of fragrant chinar, cypress and pine trees, exchanging gossip and intimacies, sharing ice creams and swapping phone numbers.

According to Reza, 27, and his girlfriend, things are more easy-going socially than they were 10 years ago. They attribute the change to the presidency of Mohammad Khatami, Ahmadinejad's reformist predecessor. Despite Ahmadinejad's conservative instincts, the new government has been unable to put the street culture genie back in the bottle, Reza says.

"There's more personal freedom. You don't get harassed like you used to. The young people are changing the older people's attitude. They have to accept it - they have no choice, so they go with the flow." And in a country of 70m, where two-thirds of the population is under 30, the trend appears irreversible.

The present hardline government is not popular among many inhabitants of Saee Park. They complain about its failure to expand and diversify an economy that is roughly 80% state-controlled. Younger people worry about careers and jobs, about the difficulties of foreign travel and internet censorship, about the lack of things to do and places to meet. Leila, 27, says she would like to go to parties, to clubs; she would like to sing. "But they won't allow female singers, did you know that? Female vocalists are banned. They say they are too alluring to men. Poor men! They have weak brains!"

Yussuf, 63, has a different perspective. "I was a metallurgist until I retired. I trained in the US during the Shah's time. I worked all my life. But now I have to take part-time jobs because my pension isn't enough. This government is no good, they're all no good." Yussuf has another complaint: the government is sending money to Hizbullah in Lebanon that would be better spent at home, he says. "First you must look after your own people."

His friend, Ali, agrees. He wants to know into whose pockets Iran's record oil revenue is going. "Some of them [the governing elite] are buying cars for $100,000. Think of that! Did they get that money by working?"

All the same, Ahmadinejad's personal brand of nationalist populism, typified by his defiant handling of the nuclear issue, has many admirers in Saee Park and beyond. "Why don't they just leave us alone and let us live under our own rules?" asks a 32-year-old engineer.

"Iran has the right to nuclear power," chanted a crowd in Ardabil, in northern Iran, last week. During a series of nine rallies addressed by Ahmadinejad, the sentiments expressed by ordinary people are the same. Western attempts to deny Iran nuclear technology are "an obvious attempt to keep us down, like they want to keep all the developing countries down," says Majid, a 30-year-old teacher in Tehran. "We don't want nuclear weapons. But we want to build our country. What's wrong with that?"

Iranians may be cut off from the modern western world in many ways, but they are well versed in the long history of western intervention in Persia. From the Treaty of Golestan in 1813, by which Russia took control of Iran's Caucasus territories, to the 1953 CIA-led coup that toppled Iran's democratically elected prime minister, Mohammad Mosaddeq, from the US embassy hostage siege to the Iran-Contra scandal, a tale of national subjugation and degradation forms the context in which Iran looks at the west. And Iranians hear, in derogatory western talk of "mad mullahs", an echo of a 19th-century British diplomat's sneering reference to "incomprehensible orientals". It smacks of disrespect.

And now, with Washington's neo-conservatives on one side and Ahmadinejad's neo-conservatives on the other, this mutual antagonism and misunderstanding is coming to a head. In some analyses, it has brought the two countries to the brink of military conflict. If the US attacks, experts say it is likely to take the form of "precision strikes" on the four main nuclear facilities and possibly Iranian armed forces and Revolutionary Guard bases, too. But Pentagon planners know Iran has the potential to retaliate, as the unexpected success of Hizbullah in Lebanon has shown. This week the US ambassador to Iraq highlighted what he said were Iranian attempts to push Shia militants into attacks on coalition forces in Iraq. And Baghdad is only one possible theatre for Iranian reprisals should the US pull the trigger.

Mohammad Saeidi is a practical man. Sidestepping the political, ideological and historical aspects of the nuclear dispute with the west, the vice-president of Iran's Atomic Energy Organisation is focused on a set of problems that must be solved logically if the country and its people are to develop to their full potential. "The country's oil and gas reserves will last a maximum of another 25 or 30 years," he says. "Therefore we have to provide other resources."

About 7,000 people work in Iran's atomic establishment - principally in Tehran and at the Bushehr, Arak, Isfahan and Natanz complexes. Saeidi says there are plans to build 20 nuclear power stations in all, at a cost of $24-$25bn. The first, at Bushehr, built with Russian help, is expected to come on stream next year. Saeidi says that in going nuclear Iran is only following the example of other countries with growing populations and rising energy demand. Nuclear power is cheaper, and its raw component, naturally occurring uranium, is in plentiful supply in Iran's central deserts.

It is the cascade of 164 centrifuges constructed at Natanz that has drawn most international attention since Ahmadinejad announced last April that Iran had mastered the processes for uranium enrichment. It was Natanz that finally prompted the US to join with European negotiators in offering the compromise incentives package that is now on the table. But like Larijani, Saeidi stresses the research stage nature of this work - and the ongoing inspections of Natanz and other plants by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

To try to divert nuclear material for bomb-making purposes without the UN knowing would be "impossible", he says, and if a deal is struck, Tehran would be ready to reintroduce spot checks. But, in any case, bomb-making is not Iran's aim, Saeidi says - even if it had the capacity, which it does not. Overall, independent experts tend to agree that, at present, Iran does not have the wherewithal to build a nuclear weapon. But that does not mean it will not in future.

Saeidi denies that Iran kept its facilities at Natanz secret, as claimed in 2003 by the Bush administration. He says there was no legal necessity to notify the IAEA before nuclear material had entered the plant. "Natanz is a very large factory. You cannot hide it. It wasn't secret."

He also denies receiving help from Pakistan, now or in the past, despite a spate of disclosures concerning the proliferation network run by the Pakistani scientist, AQ Khan. "We don't have any relation to Pakistan on the nuclear issue. All the equipment and components we are using are made by Iranian companies and factories."

Needless to say, such statements are disputed by the US and other western governments who suspect that Iran may be running a hidden, parallel uranium enrichment programme using more advanced centrifuges. They worry it is also experimenting with plutonium reprocessing. But all such claims are met with a flat denial.

"We don't have any secret programme. We don't have any secrets," Saeidi says. Iran does not want the bomb, he and other officials insist; and it has no plans to build one. What it does want is a plentiful future supply of nuclear energy to fuel the rise of a new, more powerful nation - and in this ambition, it will brook no obstacles.

There's ample time to help the Iranians replace Ahmedinejad democratically, but we need to stop puffing him up and to reverse ourselves and convince Reformers that voting against him matters.

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 21, 2006 9:01 AM

They didn't vote against him last time (for a variety of reasons) - why would they do it in 2009?

Posted by: ratbert at August 21, 2006 9:37 AM

Because the boycott didn't work.

Posted by: oj at August 21, 2006 9:42 AM

Man on the Street Interviews are less useful even than anecdotal evidence.

Posted by: erp at August 21, 2006 11:27 AM

If they test a nuke, I presume we would destroy every facility on the list (and then some). If they try to strike us, we'd hit them again. And again. Do they know this?

Posted by: ratbert at August 21, 2006 3:13 PM

ratbert. They shouold. It's been in all the papers.

Posted by: erp at August 21, 2006 4:45 PM

Why would they care--they're ten years from a weapon and this regime will be long gone.

Posted by: oj at August 21, 2006 5:15 PM

10 years - you sound like the CIA. Or the NYT. Or Sy Hersh.

My guess is that there won't be an election in 2009. The mullahs knew Khatami would release enough domestic pressure to prevent real problems for them at home, and he mollified the Euros enough (with his sly smile) to keep things quiet abroad. With Ahmadinejad, they have their equivalent of Goebbells (or Heydrich) on stage, because they don't care about world opinion anymore, and they probably suspect that they have cowed any domestic trouble.

And if they portray Iran as the vanguard of a Shi'a resurgence, how is a 'reform' candidate going to run against that?

Khameini isn't leaving except as a bloodstain on the floor.

Posted by: jim hamlen at August 21, 2006 11:05 PM

Khamenei wants rid of Ahmedinejad who wasn't his choice. Elections are the easiest way to do it.

Posted by: oj at August 21, 2006 11:14 PM