Iran's nuclear defiance taps deep points of pride

November 15, 2011 - 2:30 PM
Mideast Iran Iran's Nuclear Mind

Female Iranian students hold posters of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and a poster against US President Barack Obama, while they gather in front of the Isfahan Uranium Conversion Facility in support of Iran's nuclear program, just outside the city of Isfahan, 410 kilometers, 255 miles south of the capital Tehran, Iran, Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2011. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Banners proclaiming Iran's "obvious right" to nuclear technology are draped over building facades. State media describe the head of the U.N. atomic watchdog agency as an American puppet and dismiss claims about nuclear weapons advances as made-in-USA falsehoods.

At Tehran University, a group of hard-line students starts a petition urging Iran to withdraw from an international treaty regulating nuclear development.

There's no doubt Iran carefully stage manages much of its backlash to Western pressures over its nuclear efforts. But not all.

Iran's defiance remains one of the few patches of common ground in a nation with multiple divisions: Hard-liners against opposition groups; power struggles between the ruling clerics and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad; infighting among various parliament factions.

"Iranians don't agree on much these days, but you could say the nuclear issue is one where they more or less speak in a common voice," said William O. Beeman, a University of Minnesota professor who follows Iranian affairs.

He said that gave some breathing room to Iran's ruling system.

"That's a big advantage," he said. "They can concentrate on the fight with the U.S. and others and — with this case at least — don't have to deal with internal tensions."

For Western leaders and their allies, the showdown with Iran is without much nuance: A nonnegotiable drive to halt suspected steps toward a nuclear weapon. Within the Islamic Republic, however, the nuclear question is deeply intertwined with powerful elements — such as national pride and efforts to become an Islamic leader in scientific progress — that have left little room for concessions to Western pressures.

Iran's latest onslaught suggests compromise remains elusive as Western officials examine possible tougher sanctions and leave open the option of military action. The next step comes later this week when the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency board meets in Vienna and could refer the report to the U.N. Security Council.

"There is a major perception gap," said Theodore Karasik, a security expert at the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis. "What the West sees as a potential threat, Iran sees as their right."

Iran's state-scripted nuclear narrative has gone into overdrive after last week's report by the IAEA, which alleged that Iran conducted secret weapons-related tests and is close to developing a nuclear warhead. For years, Iran has claimed it only seeks reactors for energy and research.

State TV and other news outlets hammered the IAEA report as a tool for U.S. and Israel pressure. In the central city of Isfahan, more than 2,000 university students chanting "Down with the U.S." and "Death to Israel" joined a human chain outside a uranium conversion facility in a show of support for Iran's nuclear program.

The demonstrators urged the Iranian government to block access of the IAEA inspectors to Iranian nuclear facilities and said they were ready to sacrifice themselves to defend the country's nuclear rights, according to state media reports.

A front-page cartoon in the conservative daily Kayhan depicted Uncle Sam directing IAEA chief Yukiya Amano to release the document.

"A pawn," complained conservative lawmaker Mahmoud Ahmadi Bighash. Other Iranian officials have compared the report to the widely discredited U.S. claims — before the 2003 invasion of Iraq — that Saddam Hussein sought to purchase concentrated natural uranium known as yellowcake.

Iran's opposition groups — galvanized by the disputed re-election of Ahmadinejad in 2009 — have remained mostly silent on the nuclear standoff in what's interpreted as a highly unusual nod of support to the ruling system. Former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, who has openly challenged the ruling clerics in recent years, joined the chorus denouncing the IAEA report.

The only serious voices of dissent have come from Iranian exile factions, including one group that issued an open letter this week warning that Iran's unwillingness to compromise could lead to a disastrous war.

"I think there's no more point in making additional concessions," Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi was quoted by the German news weekly Der Spiegel in an interview published Sunday. "The nuclear question is just a pretext to weaken us by all means."

This helps explain Iran's defiance.

Iranian officials claim that Western powers and their allies are fearful of the Islamic Republic's advances, including an aerospace program that has carried satellites out of Earth's atmosphere and defense technologies such as missiles capable of reaching Israel and America's Arab partners in the Gulf.

Iran also insists that it has full rights under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty to enrich uranium to create nuclear fuel. Iran says it only seeks enrichment levels to power reactors, but the U.S. and others worry that the same process can be used to make weapons-grade material.

Iran's parliamentary speaker, Ali Larijani, warned that Iran could reconsider its level of cooperation within the U.N.'s nuclear agency. But a full withdrawal is unlikely because it would be seen as mirroring the position of Israel, which is believed to have a nuclear arsenal yet does not allow outside inspections. Israeli officials neither confirm nor deny the country's nuclear status.

The IAEA report is a "reproduction" of claims by Israel and the U.S.," Larijani told an open session of the parliament Sunday.

Beyond the anger, however, are also degrees of nervousness that the report would rattle support from longtime allies Russia and China, which have veto powers to block stronger sanctions in the Security Council.

China has sent signals that it could ramp up pressure on Iran despite crucial trade ties. At the Asia-Pacific summit earlier this week in Hawaii, President Barack Obama said he and Chinese President Hu Jintao want to ensure that Iran lives by "international rules and norms."

Meanwhile, Ali Bagheri, deputy secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, was dispatched to Russia this week to lobby Moscow's support — which appears solid for the moment.

On Monday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was quoted as saying the IAEA report "contains nothing new" and provides no further evidence that Tehran is developing nuclear weapons. He also repeated Russia's opposition to any new U.N. sanctions.

But German Foreign Ministry spokesman Andreas Peschke said diplomats were bringing China and Russia into discussions about another possible round of EU-imposed sanctions to "send a clear signal that the current course of noncooperation must have an end."

Critics of the IAEA report seized on comments last week by Vyacheslav Danilenko, a Russian scientist described as a "foreign expert" in the document, who denied that he assisted Iran with developing an advanced detonator essential for triggering a nuclear chain reaction.

Danilenko said he was "not a nuclear scientist and I am not the founder of the Iranian nuclear program." Danilenko, an expert in a process that uses explosions to create tiny diamonds for a range of industrial uses, had worked in Iran in the 1990s.

"We are in a very dangerous situation with intransigence on both sides," Sir Richard Dalton, who was Britain's ambassador to Iran between 2003 and 2006, told a conference at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. "Iran believes it is gaining strength as the West declines."

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Murphy reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.