-- Iranians are deeply divided on politics, the economy, the role of religion in government and a dress code for women. But reformers and conservatives, urban and rural, old and young, rich and poor, and men and women generally agree on one thing: Iran needs nuclear energy, and despite its oil and gas riches, the world should not deprive it of the technology, even though it could also be used to develop weapons.
Iranians cite four reasons for their increasingly fierce determination to acquire nuclear technology: the economics of oil, a population boom that is consuming more energy, regional security, and anger at what many perceive as a U.S. ultimatum that Iran end its nuclear program.
"Iranians are united not because of activities by the Iranian regime, but because of the U.S. position. Before U.S. intervention, many Iranians thought we didn't need nuclear technology, as it's expensive and dangerous. We remember Chernobyl, which is close to Iran," said Abbas Maleki, director of the Caspian Institute, a research organization based in Tehran, referring to the 1986 nuclear accident in Ukraine. "But now all Iranians believe we must promote our activities as a sign of independence."
Analysts say that public support for the program has given the government enormous leverage in negotiating an agreement with Britain, France and Germany over the country's plan to enrich uranium, which can be used in its new nuclear energy plant and in converting the technology for military use.
Iran and European governments are currently negotiating a deal to suspend enrichment, an action that would precede a permanent agreement to ensure that Iran fulfills its obligations as a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty and is unable to produce a bomb. If those negotiations succeed, the second stage of talks would be much tougher, Iranian officials and Western diplomats here say. But the government would enter the process with a strong public mandate.
Kamal Kharrazi, Iran's foreign minister, said Saturday that the country was in the "final stages" of negotiation with the Europeans. But European envoys told the Associated Press that an agreement remained a long way off.
Students demonstrated last week at Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, demanding that the country pursue access to nuclear technology. "Enrichment is our natural right," they chanted, according to local media reports. "Nuclear technology is our legitimate right."
Nasser Hadian, a political scientist at Tehran University, called the issue "a matter of prestige."
"There's a perception among the young, even those critical of the government, that this is the technology of the future. So we have to have access," Hadian said.
Some Iranians say they fear that their country would be forced to rely on foreign sources of fuel if it did not have an enrichment program, making it susceptible to political or economic blackmail.
"When you can make a thing in your own country, it's not rational to buy it from the outside," said Amir Mohebian, political editor of the newspaper Resalat.
Under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, Iran retains the right to produce nuclear energy. The country, however, concealed aspects of its nuclear program from the IAEA, conducting secret research that involved procedures potentially useful in making weapons. The Bush administration insists that Iran, as the world's fourth-largest oil producer and second-largest gas producer, does not need nuclear energy, even though the United States approved about 20 nuclear energy plants for Iran before the 1979 revolution.
Iranians counter that they need nuclear energy, specifically seven 1,000-megawatt plants, to accommodate domestic demand that already absorbs 1.8 million of the 4 million barrels of oil that Iran produces daily. Iran's population of 69 million is expected to increase to 90 million in 16 years, the government says.
As a result, Iran could be forced to use all its oil just to meet domestic demands within 20 years. That would be devastating for an economy dependent on oil exports for most of its revenue, said Ali Salehi, Iran's former representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency.
"This is the worst way of using our oil, especially since we won't have oil forever," Salehi said. "If we did that, we'd be like the United States, which is the third-largest producer of oil in the world but also the first importer of oil."
Although the cost of a nuclear reactor is much higher than a plant for fossil fuels, Iranian experts say the savings that would come from being able to export more of its oil as a result would pay for a nuclear facility in two to three years.
Iran is also wary of the cost of importing fuel for a nuclear plant, even if a permanent deal brokered by the Europeans includes lower rates. "We don't want to pay millions of dollars to Europe to buy the fuel," said Mohsen Rezaie, a former commander of Iran's Revolutionary Guards who is seen as a potential presidential contender.
Iran has repeatedly denied that it intends to militarize its nuclear program. But U.S. officials and other Western envoys say they believe that some Iranians would like to be able to independently develop weapons capability.
Iran is still smarting from its war with Iraq in the 1980s, when chemical weapons killed or injured thousands of Iranians, according to U.S. estimates. The outside world did little to stop Iraq or protect Iran. "Many Iranians feel they can't rely on the world to defend us" against the use of weapons of mass destruction, Hadian said.
The neighborhood doesn't help. Pakistan, India, China, Russia and Israel all have the bomb, and Iraq and Libya have worked on it.
"Having the technology in itself has a psychological effect to deter countries," said Mohsen Mirdamadi, a former chairman of parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy Committee and one of three leaders of the U.S. Embassy takeover in 1979. "Nuclear technology will not deter America, but for countries in the region, it has that effect."