As Iranian Students Stage ‘Pro-Nuke’ Rallies, Dissidents Urge Iran to Back Away From Bomb-Making

By Patrick Goodenough | November 16, 2011 | 5:28 AM EST

Iranian students form a human chain at Iran’s Isfahan uranium conversion facility on Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2011. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

( – Thousands of Iranian students reportedly formed a human chain around a nuclear facility in central Iran Tuesday in a show of support in the face of international condemnation, but there are signs that traditional support among reformists for the nuclear program may be splintering.

A letter signed by 175 Iranian dissidents this week called on the regime to shut down all military elements of the nuclear program, and to temporarily suspend uranium enrichment as well.

The letter, posted on a student activist Web site, Daneshjoonews and reported by the Wall Street Journal, expressed concern about the effects on ordinary Iranians of the building international pressure, referring among other things to congressional calls to impose sanctions against Iran’s central bank.

It urged compromise with the international community and responsible efforts to prevent war and its “devastating consequences.”

Daneshjoonews described the signatories as “political activists, civil society [representatives], students, academics and journalists.”

The Iranian government’s denials that its nuclear program has any military component were strongly disputed by allegations contained in a recent International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report, which for the first time publicly charged Iran with developing the technology used to manufacture nuclear weapons. Iran has dismissed the report as “U.S.-dictated.”

The report’s release has heightened speculation about a stronger response to Iran’s defiance of the international community, with Israelis debating the pros and cons of a military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities while the U.S. and Europe consider far tougher sanctions.

Not surprisingly, Iranian regime-friendly media have ignored the reformists’ call for the government to compromise.

Iranian students pray in front of the Isfahan uranium conversion facility during a gathering in support of Iran's nuclear program, just outside Isfahan, 255 miles south of Tehran on Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2011. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

Instead, the semi-official Fars news agency reported that thousands of students held a prayer session Tuesday at the uranium conversion facility at Isfahan and formed a human chain “in a bid to show full support for the government's nuclear policy and to display that they are ready to sacrifice their lives for Iran’s progress in civilian nuclear technology.”

The Tehran Times and its affiliated Mehr news agency also highlighted remarks by former president Mohammad Khatami Monday to the effect that reformists and non-reformists alike will oppose any foreign interference in Iran’s affairs, and dismissing as “unsubstantiated” the IAEA report allegations.

He said he hoped neither President Obama nor Iranian leaders would be swayed by those seeking war.

Khatami is often labeled a reformist, although his 1997-2005 term in office recorded little improvement in Iran’s human rights record, its stance towards the West, or its support for anti-Israel terrorist groups.

His tenure also saw the development of the covert nuclear program, although after it was exposed by dissidents in late 2002 his government did agree to limited compromise with the international community.

Khatami was succeeded by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005. The IAEA report says that although Iran ended its “structured program” in late 2003, some activities that continued after that date “would be highly relevant to a nuclear weapon program.”

According to an article on the reformist Rooz news Web site, regime harassment of the opposition has been on the rise as international pressure increases, with leading figures summoned by security officials and warned against any political gatherings or other actions.

“In recent years, every time the Islamic Republic was confronted with a difficult position in its relations with the West, it took the direction of imposing oppressive measures against its opponents and dissidents,” wrote journalist Morteza Kazemian.

Iran’s best known opposition leaders, former prime minister Mir Hossein Mousavi and former parliamentary speaker Mehdi Karroubi, have been under house arrest for months and have been banned from taking part in parliamentary elections scheduled for March.

New bipartisan Iran sanctions legislation approved by the House Foreign Affairs Committee early this month authorizes the president to provide financial and political assistance to groups supporting democracy in Iran, as long as those groups are dedicated to human rights and the equality of women, and renounce violence and terrorism.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow