x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Nuclear debate splits public opinion

Surveys suggest that the majority of population desires nuclear power but Iranians are divided over the need for atomic weapons.

TEHRAN // As politicians and analysts in Iran and around the world debate the country's nuclear programme, the opinions of the Iranian public have been conspicuous by their absence.

News broadcasts of massive, government-organised rallies in support of the nuclear drive and protesting against foreign objections may give the impression that Iranians are united in wanting a nuclear programme and the development of nuclear weapons.

But a survey of opinions from different sectors of Iranian society suggests attitudes towards the programme are diverse and nuanced.

For the vast majority of people who spoke to The National, developing nuclear power as a replacement for oil and gas should be a top priority for the government - a necessity recently brought into sharp relief by falling oil prices - though the need for a nuclear weapon proved a more divisive issue.

"We need a substitute for fossil fuels; everyone knows that," said Manouchehr Haghighi, a taxi driver in his 40s from south Tehran. "I support the nuclear programme 100 per cent."

Leaning against his green taxi on a quiet street in north Tehran, Mr Haghighi said Iranians are frustrated that the international community subjects the Islamic republic's nuclear ambitions to an exceptional level of scrutiny while many western and some Middle Eastern countries have nuclear programmes and even weapons.

He said the development of nuclear power, not weapons, was essential because the country will one day depend on it for energy.

But, he added: "If other countries have these weapons, why shouldn't we?"

Narges Ali Daie, 21, a student of medical management at Iran University of Medical Sciences in Tehran, said she was in favour of nuclear power and eventually developing nuclear weapons, but the economy and other social issues were of far greater importance.

"Most Iranians want a nuclear programme, but there are other things to sort out first," she said after coming out of an English-language class in north Tehran. "But we want to have nuclear weapons for protection. This is our right. This is not just the feeling in Iran, but every country."

But Vahid Abedini, 26, a political analyst and member of the reformist Islamic Alliance, said the country had no need for nuclear weapons.

"Why would we need a nuclear bomb? Why on Earth would the government consider bombing Israel? It's ridiculous," Mr Abedini said at a downtown coffee shop.

His friend Mohsen, 26, a political science student at Tehran University and also a member of the Islamic Alliance, questioned the intentions of the government's nuclear activities.

"If the government is not developing a nuclear weapon, why do they keep installing centrifuges?" he said, referring to the devices necessary for the refinement of nuclear fuel.

A 2006 poll by the state-run Iranian Students Polling Agency found that 85.4 per cent of Iranians backed the nuclear programme, though that figure dropped to 64 per cent if economic sanctions were to be imposed on the country as a result.

A poll taken in April by WorldPublicOpinion.org, an independent public opinion research centre based in the United States, seemed to support this, finding that 81 per cent of Iranians consider it "very important" for Iran to have a "full-fuel-cycle nuclear programme" enabling the country to produce nuclear fuel for energy production.

On nuclear weapons, however, the poll found that 66 per cent were opposed to their development, with 58 per cent saying it was against Islamic principles, and only 20 per cent in favour.

Indeed, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country's supreme leader, has said the possession of a nuclear weapon would be a violation of Islam.

And many Iranians who support the programme express the same view.

"Religiously we are not allowed to have a weapon of mass destruction," said Fatima, 22, a member of the Baseej, a pro-regime militant group that was founded after the 1979 revolution and forged in the eight-year war with Iraq. "Iran wants [nuclear energy] to make peaceful progress."

Asking only to use her first name, Fatima, a philosophy student at Tehran University who wears the chador, accused the United States and the European Union of using the issue as a pretext to deprive Iran of much needed energy resources and keep it weak.

The United States, Israel, the European Union and most Gulf states are in varying degrees opposed to Iran's nuclear programme, accusing it of enriching uranium to construct a nuclear warhead.

Their suspicions have been excited by International Atomic Energy Agency findings that Iran is enriching uranium at its nuclear plant in Natanz, a crucial step in producing a nuclear weapon.

Some in Iran say that is not something to apologise for.

In a carpet store in the labyrinthine Tehran bazaar, the store owner, who asked not to be named, said Iran needed nuclear technology as much as any other country and should take instruction from no one on what form that should take.

"Iran was founded 10,000 years ago - when was the US founded?" he said. "Iran does not need anyone. We have the oil, gas, the people and the technology."

But for most Iranians the development of a nuclear programme, while essential to the country's future development and even sovereignty - the state will become energy dependent once fossil fuels run out - should be peaceful in nature.

"Anyone who knows about this issue is in favour of a peaceful nuclear programme," said Hamid Reza Taraghi, a member of the conservative Motalefeh party.

"But in the next 10 years nuclear energy will have the last word and countries that have it will be able to develop independently. Countries without it will have to rely on those that do."