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Last Updated: Saturday, 24 September 2005, 11:45 GMT 12:45 UK
Iranians take pride as tensions mount
By Frances Harrison
BBC, Iran

Many Iranians resent outside interference in their affairs, and, as our correspondent reports, tension with the West has only made the country further cherish its independence.

An Iranian nuclear scientist
Iran resumed uranium conversion work in August

Iranians claim to have invented the first postal system, polo, human rights, calendars, wine, sewing thread, ships and perfume.

They claim to produce the best carpets, caviar, pistachios, pomegranates, miniature paintings and so on.

In fact it is not a claim - it is expressed as an indisputable fact and there is genuine surprise if it is challenged.

When a giant outdoor TV screen was recently installed in a square in Tehran and various officials went to inaugurate it, there were complaints.

People asked why there was so much fuss about a mere Japanese TV when Iran had given the world so many more valuable things.

Ancient civilisation

So, when someone asked one of Iran's nuclear negotiators whether they would consider a Libyan style solution to the nuclear issue - giving up the nuclear programme in return for plaudits and favours from the West - he responded angrily saying Iran is not Libya.

Iran, he said, was a country with a 2,500 year history, an ancient civilization.

The Israelis are the latest to denounce Iran as an evil regime.

But as Iran increasingly finds itself in confrontation with the West over its nuclear programme it is the nationalist card that its leaders play - not the religious one
The outside world may say it is part of the axis of evil or, more lately, a mere outpost of tyranny but, ironically, they are just aping the moralistic rhetoric of the Islamic Republic.

A recent late night show on Iranian TV examining the concept of the devil intercut footage from horror films such as the Exorcist with pictures of George Bush, Condoleezza Rice and Tony Blair.

There was no doubt they were being portrayed as manifestations of Satan plunging the world into evil.

But as Iran increasingly finds itself in confrontation with the West over its nuclear programme, it is the nationalist card that its leaders play - not the religious one.

Support for the country's nuclear ambitions cuts across the ideological divide - secular and Islamic Iranians say almost identical things.

They talk of how Pakistan and India have nuclear weapons - and then mention Israel - and ask why Iran should be deprived of its rights and be discriminated against.

Hurt pride

So, in the context of the nuclear dispute, what comes across strongly is the sense of hurt national pride.

Iran's top nuclear negotiator this week complained bitterly that the rest of the world wanted to treat the people of Iran like second-class citizens and insult them.

The president has been talking about a system of nuclear apartheid and a class system in the pecking order of nations allowed access to sensitive nuclear technology.

And, when asked about international opposition to Iran, he told reporters Iranians were very bright and clever and could set an example to the rest of the world.

Many nations may think this about themselves but most do not say it.

Young scientists

For months Iranian television has been airing programmes extolling the achievements of the nation's young scientists.

Amid this climate of nationalism there is little space for genuine debate on the nuclear issue
It shows them pottering about in white coats in laboratories and explains how they have gone to extraordinary lengths to mine raw uranium.

A rousing voice-over talks about their efforts. My only problem is that it seems to be the same person who advertises washing powder and other more mundane national achievements.

But I have now discovered there are three men in the advertising business with identical voices and styles of delivery. Obviously, the first one could not cope with the work load and had to clone himself.

Debate

Amid this climate of nationalism, there is little space for genuine debate on the nuclear issue. You do not hear voices from the anti-nuclear or environmental movements, no opposition with a different diplomatic approach.

Nobody here asks why Iran needs nuclear power when it still has vast untapped gas reserves or could use hydro power, not to mention its oil.

In fact, many ordinary Iranians blur the distinction between nuclear power and nuclear weapons - interchanging the two ideas indiscriminately.

Referral to the United Nations Security Council is something people are worried about because it smacks of the Iraqi experience, when years of UN sanctions were followed by a coalition invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of the regime of Saddam Hussein.

They assume referral means sanctions, but in reality sanctions are probably a very long way down the road.

Dark days

Having been through the hardship and economic isolation of an eight-year war with Iraq, nobody here wants to go back to those dark days.

But there is also the spirit of self reliance and independence
Life is already hard enough. For most Iranians it is a struggle to survive on local salaries when so many goods are imported at Western prices.

If nuclear technology means intense economic suffering it might lose its appeal.

But there is also the spirit of self-reliance and independence.

Their war with Iraq saw Iranians pitted against the superpowers who backed Saddam Hussein.

That has left some with the feeling that if they have to face the world alone again they can do it.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 24 September, 2005 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.



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