Iran's nuclear activities and ambitions faced rare, blunt criticism at a roundtable at Tehran University, where one of the speakers said the damage done by the nuclear program was greater than that by the 1980-88 war with Iraq, which left tens of thousands dead and caused much devastation.
"The imposed war [with Iraq] did not damage us as much as the nuclear program has," professor Sadegh Zibakalam said at the December 17 roundtable, according to reports by Iranian semiofficial news agencies.
Zibakalam also criticized the lack of public debate about the nuclear issue.
Other speakers were also critical of the nuclear program and its costs for Iranians, who have come under unprecedented U.S.-led sanctions that have made life more difficult.
Speaking at the event, former reformist lawmaker Ahmad Shirzad said nothing had come out of the nuclear program, "not even a glass of water."
"If you ask me why we're moving on the nuclear path, I must say I have no idea," Shirzad was quoted as saying by the ISNA news agency. "This is exactly like the continuation of the war [with Iraq] after the liberation of Khorramshahr," he added.
Shirzad said that he welcomed Iran's official line, according to which the country is against building and acquiring nuclear weapons.
The former lawmaker also seemed to suggest that Iran would be better off without a civil nuclear program. "Iran doesn't have the primary resources and know-how for a nuclear program," he was quoted as saying by ISNA. He said Iran could assert itself in areas such as petrochemistry and natural gas, where the country has the resources and the knowledge.
Former diplomat and professor Davoud Hermidas Bavand said Iran's nuclear program should not be compared to the nationalization of the oil industry in 1951, a comparison made by former President Mahmud Ahmadinejad.
"What happened under the government of [Prime Minister Mohammad] Mosaddegh was a struggle for rights under international laws. But in the nuclear issue, the resistance against bullying has been going in a direction that, in the long run, some other inalienable rights of the people are being [taken away]," Bavand said.
He added that it is the duty of President Hassan Rohani, to the people and history, to resolve the nuclear issue in a peaceful and constructive manner.
Open Debate Welcomed
Criticism of the nuclear issue has been a red line in Iran, where media face tough censorship rules in their news coverage.
Shirzad said the nuclear issue has turned into a matter of "honor." "When something becomes a matter of honor, discussing it is not possible anymore. And that has been our problem for the past 11 years," he said.
Zibakalam said that under Iran's previous administration, criticism of the nuclear issue was impossible. "Unfortunately from 2003 to 2013, debate about the different aspects of the nuclear issue was not possible. I believe that whenever people and the press are prevented from expressing their opinions on different issues, the result is not good," he was quoted as saying.
He added that during those years whenever he would send a slightly critical piece to the press, "the editors would dump it in the closest trash can."
Zibakalam credited hard-liners opposing nuclear talks with the West for the opportunity to criticize the nuclear program.
He noted that those who had gathered under the slogan "We're Worried" had harshly criticized the nuclear deal reached in Geneva last year, saying that Iran had made too many concessions. "For the first time, the general policies of the establishment were challenged," he said.
Reports suggest that in recent months, hard-liners have been told to tone down their criticism of Rohani's government over nuclear negotiations with the West.
Last month, Ali Akbar Velayati, a senior adviser to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, called for an end to domestic criticism of the extension of the nuclear talks between Iran and major world powers.
The talks are aimed at finding a lasting solution to the crisis over Iran's nuclear program in exchange for the removal of the sanctions.
Velayati said on November 30 that since the supreme leader had endorsed an extension of the talks for several months, people should stop their criticism. Khamenei has the last say in all state matters in the Islamic republic, including the nuclear program.
-- Golnaz Esfandiari