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Iranians see right to nuclear program as matter of national pride

TEHRAN, Iran -- From this country's divisive political sphere to its disaffected streets, one thing binds Iranians of all ideologies: a fervent belief in the Islamic Republic's right to its nuclear program.

Even Iranians who oppose weapons development, including some members of the government, insist that the nation has a right to the technology. In a country that still tends to think of itself as a superpower, nuclear capabilities represent progress and modernity to a people hypersensitive to any perceived inequities.

"Iran has paid dearly, really dearly, to prove its independence internationally," said Ali Akbar Salahi, Iran's former representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency. "Maybe we made mistakes in the past, but we want to decide our own destiny. We don't want others to decide for us."

While Iran's nuclear negotiations with Britain, France, and Germany dragged on in the IAEA's Vienna headquarters in recent weeks, student organizations and hard-line political parties staged angry pronuclear demonstrations on the streets of Tehran. "Depriving Iran of a nuclear fuel cycle," warned the Kayhan newspaper, "is not a forgivable sin."

The message was plain: Iran is no mood to relinquish its nuclear research. Any agreement to do so would spark an uproar at home, analysts here say.

"None of the political groups can dare to say that we don't need nuclear technology," said Sayed Mustafa Taj-Zadeh, an adviser to Mohammad Khatami, the country's mostly sidelined reformist president.

Iran insists its work is only meant to create power plants; US officials say Iran is secretly working to build a nuclear arsenal.

In Iran, the nuclear debate has become the defining issue in the heated struggles between reform and conservatism, engagement with the West or continued isolation. The bloodshed in Iraq has made the Iranians more confident that the United States can't back up its threats with military force.

In the compromise reached last week between Iran and the European trio, the Islamic Republic agreed to temporarily suspend uranium enrichment, which can produce either nuclear fuel or material for atomic warheads. But symptoms of Iran's internal struggle over its nuclear future were plain during the European talks: The negotiations were delayed by its flip-flopping on key issues, greeted with outrage by Iran's fundamentalists, and marked by Iranian rhetorical shifts over what, exactly, had been agreed to.

The nuclear standoff with the West is happening as Iran's conservative mullahs are running the country virtually unopposed. The brief spell of reformist fever that swept the country in the late 1990s and early 2000s have been smothered, analysts say.

Iran's conservatives, however, remain sharply divided on the question of nuclear arms. Fundamentalists believe a nuclear arsenal is crucial to harden the Islamic Republic's power and defend against attack. But other conservatives now advocate a more diplomatic approach that would, they hope, lead to a warming of trade ties with the West.

Many ordinary Iranians unabashedly support the development of nuclear weapons, which are seen by many as symbols of international status. Others simply believe that Iran should have the most potent weapons available.

"If Israel is going to threaten our country, it's our right to have nuclear weapons to defend ourselves," said Bahar Daeihagh, a 21-year-old student in Tehran. "Nuclear technology has gone global, and everybody has it. Iran should also have it."

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