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Last Updated: Tuesday, 25 April 2006, 17:12 GMT 18:12 UK
Analysis: Iran under pressure
BBC analyst Sadeq Saba examines how the Iran nuclear crisis relates to other social, religious and economic issues in the Islamic Republic.

Street scene in Tehran
Among Iranians there is no consensus on the nuclear issue
It's often said in the West that millions of Iranians, even those who are opposed to their government, believe that their country is entitled to a civilian nuclear programme.

Iranian government propaganda certainly creates this impression. But in reality the picture is more complex.

There is no doubt that many people passionately support the programme.

Some people even go further and say Iran is entitled to nuclear weapons, even though the country has committed itself under the Non-Proliferation Treaty not to develop such weapons.

The government gains support on the nuclear programme for a variety of reasons:

  • Regionally, some argue, Iran is surrounded by nuclear powers such as Pakistan, India and Russia. Why should Iran be denied?

  • Some complain about double standards in Western foreign policy. They ask why the West is silent on Israel, which is already a nuclear armed power.

  • Some Iranians have accepted the government line that the West is behaving as it did during colonial times and is denying a developing country the possibility of technological progress.

  • Iranians are highly nationalist and for many of them the nuclear issue has become a matter of national pride.

But the issue of what Iranians really think about their country's nuclear programme is not straightforward.

Fear of sanctions

There has never been a free national debate about the nature of the nuclear programme, its advantages and disadvantages.

Iran's highest security body, the Supreme Council for National Security, has ordered the media not to discuss the issue. Newspapers are allowed to support the government line but not to oppose it.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
Iran's political structure is complex and far from monolithic. The president does not have the final word and there are other powerful interests that can challenge him
Therefore many of the Iranians who support the government's nuclear policy may not be well informed.

Many analysts believe that the widespread support for the nuclear programme in Iran may be shallow and subject to sudden change.

On a recent trip to Iran, I noticed a sharp change of attitude among ordinary Iranians.

Since Iran was referred to the UN Security Council in early March, people have suddenly realised that supporting President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's nuclear policy could may have serious consequences.

People are now fearful of sanctions and possible military action. They have seen two wars on their doorstep over the past four years, in Afghanistan and in Iraq.

Economic worries

Iranian economists warn that the country's economy is heavily dependent on selling crude oil and importing vital goods, and sanctions could be deeply damaging.

Already, the threat of sanctions has affected economic activity and many investors are holding back to see what happens in the UN Security Council.

The nuclear plant at Isfahan

Iran is the world's fourth largest oil producer, but it is already suffering from spiralling inflation, chronic unemployment, lack of investment and serious social problems such as drug addiction, prostitution and homelessness.

Economists argue the country's resources should be allocated to resolving these problems rather than on a nuclear energy project which is not immediately necessary, and has united the international community against Iran.

Double-edged sword

At the moment the Security Council is not close to imposing meaningful sanctions, as Russia and China are opposed.

No-one knows how the Iranian people would react to economic measures against their country.

Some would rally behind the government.

But others might see any hardship caused by sanctions as a consequence of Mr Ahmadinejad's policies and hold him responsible.

There are millions of people in Iran who are unhappy with the Islamic regime and may seek opportunities to vent their anger.

Any weakening of central authority might also encourage separatist tendencies in the regions where ethnic and religious minorities live, such as Khuzestan, Kurdistan, Baluchistan and Azerbaijan.

But others say Iranian society is not ready for a liberal democracy and warn that foreign intervention may strengthen the conservatives.

The majority of the young people who were at the forefront of the reformist movement headed by the former President Mohammad Khatami, are now largely apolitical. Their main concern is to find jobs and earn a living.

Nationalist or hardliner

If Iran's current nuclear policy entails such dangers, it's reasonable to ask why Mr Ahmadinejad is pursuing it.

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei

Some say he is driven by religious fervour and Islamic fundamentalist ideology.

His supporters may say he is an Iranian nationalist and a man of principle who is standing up to unjust Western pressures.

But there is also a belief that he is deliberately pursuing this confrontational policy because he wants to distract public attention from internal problems. After all he came to power on a platform of fighting poverty and wealth redistribution.

Cracks may already be appearing in the Iranian establishment, especially since Iran's nuclear dossier was referred to the UN Security Council.

Power struggle?

Iran's business classes have friends in the country's powerful institutions. They fear the impact of sanctions and are calling for a diplomatic solution to the crisis.

Iran's largest reformist party, the Participation Front, has recently issued a statement urging President Ahmadinejad to stop all uranium enrichment activities.

Reports say that powerful figures including the former President Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani are working hard behind the scene to put pressure on Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to rein in the president.

They say Mr Ahmadinejad's confrontational approach has been backfiring. Opponents say the US has struggled to refer Iran to the Security Council for a long time, but with the Iranian president's help Washington got what they wanted in a few months.

The imposition of sanctions could make Mr Ahmadinejad's opponents even more vocal and precipitate a power struggle in Iran.

The ruling conservatives are already divided on how to run the country, especially on economic issues.

Moderate conservatives accuse Mr Ahmadinejad of following a populist agenda for short-term political gains and are unhappy that the hardliners are setting the political agenda.

Iran's political structure is complex and far from monolithic. The ruling clerics have not been able to establish a totalitarian state and there is a degree of freedom within the system.

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