Iranians wary of program to build nukes

TEHRAN — Just out of jail, a dissident Iranian intellectual has an urgent message for Europeans compromising with Iran on its nuclear ambitions: Don’t do it.

“We Iranians see the nuclear program not as a way of ensuring the security or future of our nation, but as insurance to maintain the political power of the clerical government,” he said, asking that his name not be used.

“We see the potential for nuclear weapons as weapons against [the people], rather than weapons against other countries.”

Iran’s nuclear ambitions have come under increased international scrutiny in recent months, with the United States and Europeans both pressuring the country to come clean on its attempts to develop nuclear weapons.

Today, the United Nations’ atomic-watchdog agency meets in Vienna, Austria, to discuss Iran’s failure to disclose elements of its nuclear program.

Iran insists its program — begun in the 1970s under Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, who was deposed in a 1979 Islamist revolt — is a peaceful one. It recently admitted, however, that it had enriched small quantities of uranium, a step toward developing nuclear weapons.

The nation of 70 million remains far from united about the prospect of obtaining nuclear power, much less the nuclear weapons prohibited under international agreements.

Even within Iran’s fractious government — where a weak, reform-minded elected body led by President Mohammed Khatami is overwhelmed by hard-line clerics who control the judiciary, intelligence and military branches — a classic guns-vs.-butter debate has raged.

“On the one hand, some were saying, ‘No way. We won’t accept these conditions and will continue our efforts at nuclear development,’” said Muhammad Reza Dehshiri, a professor of international relations in Tehran.

“On the other hand, there were others who were saying it’s better to concentrate on ameliorating living conditions of ordinary Iranians instead of spending the public budget on nuclear development. The latter group won the debate.”

Among Iranians, too, there remain differences of opinion. Some, such as the dissident intellectual, see Iran’s nuclear ambitions as an effort to gain international legitimacy.

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