Prague, 13 January 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Over the past two years, Iran's nuclear program has become a subject of international debate and concern, with suspicions and accusations that Iran is pursuing a clandestine nuclear weapons program. Those concerns reached a highpoint this week after Tehran broke UN seals at its Natanz facility and announced that it had resumed nuclear fuel research.
But officials in Tehran argue that Iran's leadership enjoys widespread public support for its decision to continue research to develop nuclear energy. They say that, for Iranians, the country's nuclear program is a matter of national pride. But little is actually known about the views of ordinary Iranian citizens.
"Some say there should be [a nuclear program]; others say it's not worth the trouble."
Some Iranians do argue that the country has the right not just to develop nuclear technology for civilian purposes, but also to develop nuclear weapons. "If America has the right to nuclear weapons after dropping bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, why doesn't Iran have that right?" an Iranian military employee, Alaeddin Amiri, was quoted as saying in the 12 January edition of the British daily "The Guardian."
"Where's the evidence that Iran will use nuclear weapons?" Amiri asked. "We are trying to protect ourselves. Iran is the heart of Islam and I believe it is Islam, and not just Iran, that is under attack."
But some observers reject the idea that Iranians are united in their desire for the country to have a nuclear program.
Iranians questioned by RFE/RL drew a line at support for the development of nuclear weapons, but supported the idea that Iran has a legitimate right to develop its civilian nuclear-energy program. "That's [Iran's] legitimate right, and other countries in the region have that possibility. This is a right of ours. Why shouldn't we use it?" asks Hamid, a 55-year-old businessman in the Iranian capital, Tehran.
Hamid is convinced Iran is not secretly trying to develop nuclear weapons.
Hamid's view is echoed by Ladan, a 46-year-old office manager in the capital. "One thing seems very strange to me, and that is why there is so much pressure [on Iran], because I think every country has the right to have some plans of its own, except for [the production of] nuclear weapons. If [nuclear activities] are for peaceful purposes, then there is nothing wrong," she believes.
Ladan says one reason people like her are not in favor of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons is that that would consolidate the clerical regime's hold on power.
Still, Ladan contrasts the international alarm at Iran's nuclear program with the international community's attitude to Israel.
"Israel now has about 200 to 300 nuclear bombs," Ladan says. "Why isn't there any pressure on Israel?"
Experts commonly believe Israel has nuclear weapons, though how many is unknown. Israel has never confirmed that it has any nuclear bombs.
Worth The Trouble?
Despite such endorsements of Iran's right to continue peaceful nuclear activities, Iranians are split in their views, says Siamak, a Tehran businessman who travels widely around the country.
"Some say there should be [a nuclear program]; others say it's not worth the trouble. I have been so busy with work that I have not seriously thought about this issue but I think conducting nuclear research is the right of every country," Simiak says. Iranian leaders "have said that they are not after nuclear weapons and that that is forbidden in Islam but they have said it is our absolute right to have nuclear technology. I also agree with them, to a certain extent."
Simiak's concern is that ordinary people will pay the price if Iran's nuclear dossier is referred to the United Nations' Security Council and if international sanctions are then imposed. "As a rule, the pressure would be on the people, [and then] of course it's not worth it," Simiak says. "We've had so many problems and just recently the tensions have been easing. We'd again have to go through periods of crisis," he says, referring to Iran's confrontations with the West following its Islamic revolution in 1979.
Some oppose the nuclear program outright. For Shadan, an 18-year-old woman from the Kelardasht district in northern Iran, the problem is that, in her view, the aims of Iran's nuclear program are military.
"No doubt there are unpublicized aspects [of Iran's nuclear program] that are causing this crisis," she believes. "I think Iran should not have [a nuclear program]. I'm against it because I don't think it will create peace and I don't think that it benefits Iran from an economic point of view, as a cheap energy source. It is only increasing our problems."
Iran's domestic problems may shape the attitudes of many ordinary people. Office manager Ladan says that nuclear issues only rarely figure among the top concerns on Iranians' minds. For most, unemployment and inflation are priorities.
"There [is] some concern about the possible referral of Iran's case to the [UN's] Security Council because, in such a case, it would be the people who would have to carry the burden," she says. "People face so many economic problems: pollution in Tehran, which makes people nervous; terrible traffic jams; unemployment; and other issues. Nuclear activities are really lost among these [other issues]."