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Report from Tehran:  Nuclear Issue Appears to Unite Iranians - 2004-02-26

Last week's parliamentary election in Iran focused attention on disputes over domestic policy between Iran's reformists and its Islamic conservatives. But Iranians at both ends of the political spectrum appear to be united on the issue of their country's nuclear program, saying Iran is entitled to nuclear technology for civilian uses. The International Atomic Energy Agency has criticized Iran for conducting a secret nuclear weapons program for years, and for concealing information about it even after making what was supposed to be a full report on its nuclear program late last year.

Dr. Ali Abaspour is an Iranian nuclear engineer who was educated at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of California at Berkeley. He is a professor at Tehran's Sharif University and says he is not involved in the Iranian government's nuclear technology program.

But he understands the issues that divide Iran and the IAEA. He says it's all about what is called dual-use technology, technology that can be used either in civilian nuclear programs or to build nuclear bombs.

"Just a part that you can use only for nuclear weapons?.... As far as I know, I should say no. I don't see anything. For example, when you have car technology, you can suit it [to] produce [a] tank. When you have nuclear science, some things can go both ways," he said.

As Dr. Abaspour explains, when it comes to this nuclear debate, there is no smoking gun or a single piece of technology that would prove an intent on Iran's part to make weapons.

Foreign experts do not accept that explanation. An IAEA report leaked this week concludes that Iran failed to declare sophisticated designs and components that could be used to enrich uranium quickly, a process that can be used to build a nuclear bomb. The agency previously accused Iran of working on nuclear weapons secretly for years. On Wednesday, the U.S. ambassador to the IAEA accused Iran of engaging in a continuing pattern of deception and of proceeding with work on nuclear weapons in spite of its increased cooperation with the IAEA.

But at Tehran's Sharif University, Dr. Abaspour believes his government's claims that its nuclear program is entirely peaceful, aimed at developing nuclear technology for use in such fields as agriculture and medicine. He says Iran urgently needs that type of technology.

"We are young in the field of nuclear medicine," he said. "The only research reactor we have in Amirabad [belongs to the] Atomic Energy Organization, it [dates back] to about 40-45 years ago. And that reactor is not good for producing isotopes for medical purposes, so I think we need this kind of equipment."

Dr. Abaspour ran for a parliamentary seat in last week's election as a conservative. He will be involved in a run-off election in his district. If he is elected he would be legally barred from participating in Iran's official nuclear program, although he may be called on to draft legislation related to the issue.

The election exposed the depth of the differences between conservatives and reformists in Iran. Most reformist candidates were barred from running by the conservative Guardian Council. Many reformists then boycotted the election, and turnout was only about 50 percent, much less in Tehran. As expected, conservatives took control of the parliament.

But the nuclear issue appears to unite Iranians in the common belief that they are entitled to a non-military nuclear technology program. And despite the fact that it is the IAEA, a part of the United Nations, that is criticizing Iran about some aspects of its nuclear program, much of the Iranian anger about the issue is directed at the United States.

Morad Veisi is an editor for a pro-reform newspaper, recently shut down by the Iranian government.

He says, Iran has been asked by the United States why it needs nuclear power since it has so much oil and gas. But he says, before the Islamic revolution, the United States helped Iran start the Bushehr nuclear power plant, and promised to build seven or eight more.

Mr. Veisi adds that the American opposition to Iran having nuclear power is not fair. He says the international community should help Iran acquire this technology for non-military purposes and the international community can inspect what Iran does.

In the offices of the pro-government newspaper, Hamshari, or Homeland, where you would find little agreement with Mr. Veisi on most issues, the feeling on the nuclear issue is much the same.

Editor in chief Ali Sheikhatar says U.S. foreign policy is hypocritical, especially considering the support Washington gives to Pakistan. "I should ask from Washington why [it has less confidence in Iran than it has in] Pakistan," he said. "Pakistan also has nuclear weapons. Pakistan is also an Islamic country. In Pakistan the anti-American rhetoric is not less than Iran, maybe it is more. In Pakistan, in the recent few years there have been many reactions, even terrorism reactions against America, but in Iran you have not had such type of reactions."

The answer Mr. Sheikhatar says, is mistrust of Iran, which he says the United States simply has to get over.

"So prior [to solving] this nuclear issue, this [lack of confidence] between Iran and the United States should be solved," he said. "otherwise it's a waste of time to discuss this nuclear issue, whether it is dangerous or it is not, whether it is being prepared or it is not, it's a waste of time."

Meanwhile, there is still a divide between Iran and the IAEA about the technology Iran already has. The nuclear agency has urged Iran to provide promptly more information regarding its nuclear program. But Iran says it has already reported enough. If Iran fails to satisfy the agency, it could face sanctions from the U.N. Security Council.