ISFAHAN, Iran – Electrical engineering student Roozbeh Rahimi reflects a common sentiment among Iranians when he expresses hope that this famous tourist city will gain fame soon for its nuclear technology.

“We need nuclear power. And if it’s used for military purposes, all the better,” said Rahimi, 22.

Hanging out with friends in an upscale shopping district five miles from a heavily guarded nuclear research facility, Rahimi isn’t worried about pressure from Europe and the United States to scale back the program. “No one has respect for us now.”

Iran’s Islamic government says its nuclear programs are for peace, aimed at generating electric power. The clerics who rule the nation want to continue the programs while allaying the fears of the United States and Europe that Iran is secretly developing nuclear weapons. The Bush administration, which accuses Iran of sponsoring international terrorism, is troubled by the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran.

Last week, Iran struck a deal with Europeans that will curb its work on uranium enrichment in exchange for a set of economic incentives.

But one thing’s clear on the streets of Isfahan: Iran’s leaders face no pressure from their own people to scale back the project.

“We have the right to be safe and to defend our own people and country,” said Rahimi’s friend, Masoud Iranfadah, 25, a film producer.

With recent American-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which border Iran to the west and east, and squabbles over water rights with neighbors to north and the south, many Iranians, like Iranfadah and Rahimi, say they don’t feel safe. They question why they shouldn’t have nuclear weapons when nearby Israel, Pakistan and India do.

Of more than two dozen Iranians interviewed in Isfahan and Tehran, all favored Iran’s acquiring nuclear power and enriching its own uranium to power its plants, even if the process could be manipulated to develop an atomic bomb.

Most added that they’d like to see Iran develop nuclear weapons as a deterrent and to enhance its stature in the Middle East.

The U.S. threat of stronger sanctions because of Iran’s budding nuclear program doesn’t seem to affect public feelings. Nor did recent threats by Israel to send warplanes to destroy any Iranian nuclear sites it deems a threat.

“We are ready to pay the price,” Rahimi said.

That kind of public support is a boost for Iran’s leaders, who’ve grown unpopular as efforts to liberalize the country have withered under a harsh crackdown. The Iranian Parliament also has given a voice to public concerns, voting in the past two months to mandate that Iran resume enriching uranium in defiance of the West.

Public calls for nuclear weapons are troubling, when Iran has tried to persuade the West for years that its nuclear interests are peaceful, said Elaheh Koolaee, a Tehran University professor and a former member of Iran’s parliamentary Committee on National Security and Foreign Policy.

“We have a need for deterrence, but not for nuclear weapons,” she said.

Iran also needs foreign technology and training for its nuclear program, said Abbas Maleki, a former Foreign Ministry official aligned with Iran’s conservatives who now heads a Tehran-based research center.

“Iran’s right of enrichment of uranium, it cannot be ignored, but at the same time, it’s like manufacturing a car,” he said, explaining through analogy why Iran can wait for now. “For example, Iran imported some cars, then imported different parts for those cars and installed them in Iran and now Iran is manufacturing those cars.”

Iran needs to find a balance between the need for nuclear technology and the demands of the international community while assuring the public that the country remains strong, said Hossein Mousavian, the chief Iranian delegate to the International Atomic Energy Agency, which has been investigating the Islamic republic’s nuclear activities.

“The biggest issue for politicians in deciding about nuclear policy is this public opinion,” Mousavian said in a recent interview in his Tehran office. “We understand very well that because of regional nuclear threats to Iran, people would like the state to go toward such a policy.

“But we believe the best way to buy security for Iran is the elimination of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East.”

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, issued a fatwa, or religious decree, in 1996 telling Iranian atomic scientists that Islam forbids producing or using nuclear or any other mass-destruction weapons. Even during the war with former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, when thousands of Iranian soldiers were gassed with chemical weapons, Iran didn’t respond in kind, Mousavian said.

“Iran is strong because of its human resources … and conventional weapons, not because of (nuclear) missiles,” Maleki said.

The Bush administration is unconvinced. Last Wednesday, Secretary of State Colin Powell said U.S. intelligence agencies thought that Iran was working on ways to modify missiles to carry nuclear warheads.

Powell said he couldn’t verify claims by an Iranian exile group, the National Council of Resistance in Iran, that Iran was still secretly enriching uranium and had acquired a nuclear weapons design. Although the group and its military arm, the Mujahedeen Khalq, are on the U.S. list of terrorist organizations, some of its past claims about Iran’s nuclear activities have proved correct.

A two-year-long investigation by the International Atomic Energy Agency found that Iran had pursued some nuclear activities that appeared suspicious, but no “smoking gun” relating to nuclear-weapons development was found.

Iran, meanwhile, has agreed to suspend its uranium-enrichment activities indefinitely starting Monday, agreeing to demands from Britain, France and Germany. The pledge probably will be enough to satisfy the IAEA’s board of governors, which meets Thursday. It’s unlikely to satisfy the Bush administration, which long has pushed for Iran’s dossier to be referred to the U.N. Security Council for sanctions.

(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.


PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): IRAN-NUCLEAR

AP-NY-11-19-04 1407EST

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