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Last Updated: Wednesday, 20 October, 2004, 10:42 GMT 11:42 UK
Iranians unite over nuclear row

By Frances Harrison
BBC correspondent in Tehran

Britain, France and Germany are to present Iran with a deal this week - a package of incentives such as trade ties and imported nuclear fuel - in return for Tehran's total suspension of all uranium enrichment activities.

A general view of Iran's first nuclear reactor, being built in Bushehr
The UN wants Iran to end all enrichment activities

But Iran has been quite categorical about saying it will not stop its uranium enrichment, only suspend it, and only under certain conditions.

This view is strongly endorsed by many ordinary Iranians, irrespective of their allegiance to the regime.

"Why should the US, Britain and Israel all have nuclear weapons and not us?" asks student Saida Hussain.

It is a frequently repeated reaction, but Saida says she is willing to fight for Iran's rights if it comes to war.

The 22-year-old has come to Tehran's main cemetery, Beshesht-e Zahra, to visit the grave of her uncle, who died in the Iran-Iraq war.

Under pressure

She makes little distinction between nuclear power and nuclear weapons, but says the outside world can be sure that Iran will never use atomic weapons first.

"I want to tell outsiders not to think that young people today are different from young people in the early days of the revolution just because some Western culture has been penetrating into the country," she says.

Mehdi Mahmood, a 24-year-old member of the basiji or Islamic volunteer forces attached to the mosques, says: "Imagine you're in a classroom and a teacher walks in and distributes books to everybody but you. How would you feel? You feel isolated - you feel discriminated against."

No government in Iran can afford to say it is going to cancel the nuclear programme altogether
Professor Zibakalam

He argues the nuclear issue is the same - Iran is being discriminated against by being told it cannot have enrichment technology.

"They say don't give a hungry man fish to eat, but teach him how to catch them for himself," Mehdi says, using another down-to-earth metaphor to express Iran's need to master the fuel cycle independently.

And in the affluent suburbs of north Tehran, the sense of discrimination is just as deeply felt.

Ali - who doesn't want to give his real name - is a professional actor with little love for the regime, but he says that as an Iranian, the nuclear issue makes him feel humiliated.

"Imagine I've written a play and someone wants to censor it - I would feel suffocated," he says, adding that the nuclear issue is the same thing on a bigger, more international scale.

He wants his country to have a respectable position in the world, and argues it should not be forced to accept something against its interests.

Full support

From reformers to hardliners, supporters or opponents of the Islamic system, there are few voices against Iran seeking nuclear technology. There are no Greenpeace-style activists in Iran questioning the country's rapid drive towards nuclear fuel.

Preliminary installation of a turbo generator at Iran's Bushehr nuclear power plant
Iran denies it wants to build nuclear weapons

Some have even likened the current mood on the nuclear issue to the 1950s, when public opinion was solidly behind the government's attempts to nationalise its oil industry in the face of external exploitation.

"I could very well imagine that if the United States attacks Iran and the excuse is human rights, Iran's interference in Iraq, Iran's support for international terrorism, then maybe many Iranians will say you shouldn't have done this," says Professor Zibakalam of Tehran University's political science department.

"But if the United States or Israel attacks Iran over the fact that Iran has been trying to develop its nuclear industry, then I think that public support would rally around the regime," he explains, pointing to the sense of growing nationalism.

When a Libyan-style solution was suggested - surrendering control of the nuclear fuel cycle in return for greater trade incentives - the reaction of a top Iranian official was hurt pride.

It is clear from Professor Zibakalam that nuclear power seems to be increasingly bound up with Iran's self image: "No government in Iran can afford to say that because of international and US pressure it will cancel the nuclear programme altogether."

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