By Karl Vick
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, March 8, 2006
TEHRAN, March 7 -- Iranians are expressing unease about the international showdown over their country's nuclear program, as broad public support for atomic power is tempered by growing misgivings about the cost.
"Yes, it's true. Day by day we get more worried, because the world is against us," said Mohammad Mohammadi, 57, in the doorway of his menswear store in Tehran's central market.
"I'm a businessman and I can see that people like myself are worried. We don't want anything nasty to happen. But at the same time, we want nuclear power. We should have it."
A shopper sizing up the dress shirts in the window agreed.
"We are living in panic, of course. We are not sure what's going to happen," said Azam Mohammadi, 54 and no relation to the store's owner. She wore an enveloping black chador, bespeaking modesty, and both lip gloss and liner.
"I, too, believe this is our right," she said. "We are a country like other countries. But what we are worried about is: We should get it through peaceful means."
The misgivings emerge as the International Atomic Energy Agency, meeting this week in Vienna, considers reporting Iran to the U.N. Security Council for defying demands to suspend specific nuclear activities. The council could impose sanctions or otherwise penalize the government and, in the process, further isolate Iranians already feeling the chill of international disfavor.
"One thing is obvious: If more foreigners come to this country, it means more money, more jobs," said Ahmad Ashuri, whose business making metal screens has declined in recent months along with Tehran's construction industry. "But this nuclear issue means fewer foreigners are coming to the country. Less money.
"If something is our right, we need to talk properly to the world."
Iran's government has worked hard in the last year to project public resolve on the nuclear question. By prolonging negotiations with European powers and the IAEA, Iran gave itself "time to work on public opinion," the government's former chief negotiator said in newly revealed remarks.
"Technically, in comparison to last year, we are in a better position," Hassan Rouhani, the former negotiator, said in a speech made to Iranian officials in October that was printed in the current edition of Rahbord, a publication of the Center for Strategic Studies, a government research center.
Rouhani boasted that Iran had quietly completed a uranium conversion plant at Isfahan while negotiations dragged on. He also said the government gained time to prepare for a Security Council referral, which Rouhani suggested Tehran came to regard as inevitable once the country's nuclear ambitions were exposed in late 2002.
"In fact, we are much more ready now for being referred to the Security Council," Rouhani said.
Diplomats say they detect little in the way of economic or military preparations for sanctions. But the public opinion campaign has played out for months on state-run media that decide what most of Iran's 70 million people see. Newspapers carry several stories each day quoting dignitaries from all corners of the globe declaring that Iran has the right to develop nuclear power as a signatory of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The IAEA contends, however, that Iran transgressed by keeping its research secret.
On state television, pro-nuclear rallies appear so often that the slogan "Nuclear energy is our inalienable right" has become a punch line. Tehran schoolchildren summoned to chant the phrase at a rally downtown last month turned playful, substituting a portion of the pitch hollered by the vendors who peddle fireworks in traffic jams: "Nuclear energy, each package 200 tomans!"
Cell phone text messages dispense a long list of jokes that end in the phrase, such as: "A man who was complaining to a shop attendant about the high prices suddenly stopped and said: 'I know why. Because nuclear energy is our inalienable right.' "
"People are making fun because these slogans have become so routine," said Shahrzad Asadi, 22, outside a shop featuring expensive imported foods.
But if the levity points up official overkill, it also illustrates how lightly many Iranians might regard an issue that exists chiefly in the realm of principle. With Iran's nuclear program still in development after 20 years, many people say it's not clear what they stand to gain in the ongoing confrontation. The risks, however, are evident.
"Of course we're worried about sanctions," said Marieh Shariff, who like Asadi is looking for work, as at least 10 percent of Iranians are. Unofficial estimates suggest twice the rate.
"We don't have a strong economy, and now because of the confrontations of the last five or six months, the market is already down," said Samir Tabatabaei, 20. "Whenever some high official uses harsh words against foreigners, or foreigners use harsh words against us, the business just stops."
A dealer in wedding tiaras, Tabatabaei stood in a mirrored nook glittering with merchandise that costs more since Iran's tone turned belligerent -- and is purchased less, by a population wary of the future.
"Verbally, lots of people are saying they will stand firm, resist," Tabatabaei said. "But if something happens, I doubt people will really stand the pressure."
Sensing the unease, some politicians have also begun to speak up. Last week, a former member of parliament asked where Iran would get uranium if it insisted on developing a nuclear program with no outside help. Ahmad Shirzad, a nuclear physics professor at Isfahan University, said the country's two uranium mines could power one 1,000-megawatt reactor for only seven years.
"When we do not have the fuel, and no one is going to give us this fuel, is this the way to obtain it?" Shirzad said. "If we want the fuel, we should build trust."
The former lawmaker invoked the eight-year war against Iraq, a period of privation that older Iranians say they never want to experience again.
"People are under an illusion in the current atmosphere," Shirzad said. "We fought the eight-year war because we knew what we wanted and we knew what we were fighting for. But what do we want today?"