In Iran, Power Written in Stone

Abolghasem Fotoohi, right, and Hossein Arjomand, 32-year-old engineers, look out over the ruins of Persepolis. Both said they supported Iran's nuclear program.
Abolghasem Fotoohi, right, and Hossein Arjomand, 32-year-old engineers, look out over the ruins of Persepolis. Both said they supported Iran's nuclear program. (By Karl Vick -- The Washington Post)
By Karl Vick
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, January 23, 2006

PERSEPOLIS, Iran -- Wearing a stocking cap and an air of indignation, Mohammad Ahmadi pointed to the wall in front of him. It bore a splendid frieze dating from early in the millennia-long span of Iran's existence -- as a nation, an empire or simply a group of people who speak the same language.

"These are Armenians," Ahmadi said of three figures carved in vivid profile, one leading a horse. "They were bringing gifts to the king of Iran 2,500 years ago. And now they have a nuclear power plant.

"Do you want to see the Indians?" he said, indicating a lower column. "They didn't have shoes. Now they have nine nuclear plants.

"I am not a political person. I only finished high school, and I do not have much knowledge. But if I think like this, imagine how the others think."

If any doubt remains that Iranians support their government in its quest to harness the atom, the answer comes quickly and emphatically in Persepolis, the magnificent ruins that symbolize the ancient pride and fading glory bound up with the nuclear issue here.

Ordinary Iranians overwhelmingly favor their country's nuclear ambitions, interviews and surveys show. The support runs deep in the population of 68 million, cutting across differences of education, age and, most significantly, attitudes toward the fundamentalist government that the Bush administration says is intent on using an energy program as a cover for developing atomic weapons.

"Look at all this civilization!" said Mehrdad Khanban, 23, the sweep of his arm taking in the towering pillars and regal staircases of the stone city founded by Darius the Great in about 518 B.C. in the southern corner of Iran first known as Persia. "What has George Bush got? And he's telling Iranians what to do?"

Interviews with Iranians touring the ruins on a holiday weekend here suggest the breadth of the challenge facing Western powers determined to freeze Iran's recently reactivated nuclear program. The Tehran government this month ended a two-year moratorium on nuclear research by removing seals placed on uranium enrichment equipment by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. watchdog on nuclear power. In the diplomatic flurry that followed, European and U.S. officials began maneuvering toward referring Tehran to the U.N. Security Council, which could impose sanctions.

The threat has had no visible effect here.

"We will cope," Khanban said with a shrug. A soccer coach from the city of Karaj, near Tehran, he said he was no fan of Iran's ruling clerics or its hard-line president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose fiery rhetoric against Israel has alarmed many outside the country. But Khanban separated Iran's government from its aspiration to produce nuclear power -- bad news for Western diplomats who hope to cleave Iran's government from its people on the nuclear issue, perhaps through so-called smart sanctions such as restrictions on official travel abroad.

"There are so many people who don't like our government, who do not like it at all," Khanban said. "But they do not want this country to be ruled by foreigners. Like Iraq, for example."

"Everyone is united on this," said Rahimeh Goodarzi, 52, clutching her enveloping black chador to her chin at an exhibit of artifacts. "We love our country."

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