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Looking For Trust In Tehran

Although the Iranian public has historically looked favorably at Western culture, experts seem to agree that the West, and particularly the United States, has significantly lost influence among the public as Iran has become more isolated and turned inward. Photo courtesy AFP.
by Laura Heaton
UPI Intelligence Correspondent
Washington (UPI) April 01, 2007
Current Iranian leaders have done little to convince the West that they are trustworthy. But how convinced is the Iranian public that their officials are telling the truth about the nuclear program?

A new report by Pierre Goldschmidt, former deputy director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, and George Perkovich, director of the nonproliferation program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, examines statements made by two of Iran's top authorities and debunks them.

In early March, Iranian IAEA representative Ali Asghar Soltaneih issued a statement to the IAEA Board of Governors arguing the legality of Iran's nuclear program and the inappropriate nature of United Nations sanctions given Iran's "goodwill" and "patience." The statement was published by the Fars News Agency and appeared in several prominent Iranian newspapers.

On March 21, the first day of the Persian New Year, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khomeini announced in a national address, "Until today what we have done has been in accordance with international regulations" and "Western governments don't agree with Iran processing nuclear power..."

Both leaders claim that Iran's nuclear enrichment actions have been in line with international regulations," implying that Iran has been victimized by the West. But as Goldschmidt and Perkovich show, the statements can be refuted by comparing a timeline of Iran's disclosures about its nuclear program with IAEA reports.

Goldschmidt and Perkovich's report also makes the important point that the European Union and Russia have offered to help Iran expand its use of nuclear energy, a position that even the United States said it would support if Iran complied with IAEA regulations.

Although there is scant firsthand knowledge in Washington about how the Iranian public views the nuclear program, Iran policy experts offered some speculation.

"A lot of Iranians are pragmatic and know what it would mean to cross that red line to build a nuclear weapon," said Cliff Kupchan, director for Europe and Eurasia at the Eurasia Group, a risk consulting firm.

Kupchan also said that it is difficult to assess the risk -- and how the Iranian public could mediate the risk -- because the international community does not have proof of Iran's intent to weaponize its nuclear program.

"You can find all sorts of indications. There have been traces of plutonium, and you don't make sandwiches with plutonium. But is there enough hard evidence that would in my mind qualify as a smoking gun? No," Kupchan said.

According to Geoffrey Kemp, director of Regional Strategic Programs at The Nixon Center, a Washington think tank, Iranians understand that their country has "a terrible problem with electricity supply." But if Iranians were asked whether Iran should "walk away from the (Nuclear Proliferation Treaty) and start developing nuclear weapons ... I think they would be very split on the matter," Kemp said.

Kupchan offered a similar viewpoint. "When you ask Iranians if they want the right to a nuclear program and nuclear-produced energy, they usually say yes, when you just walk around Tehran and talk to people. ... If you ask an Iranian if they want a nuclear weapon, they'll say absolutely not," he said.

But regardless of whether they want military capabilities, the sense that Iran is being denied its rights is a particularly stinging in light of the nuclear balance in the region.

"There is a tremendous sense of a Western dual standard that allows Israel to have nuclear weapons and denies them to Iran. The regime is quick to exploit this," said Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.

"Now (Iranian leaders) are building a sense that Iran is under siege from the U.S. and U.K. to rally support. Iranians have been the historic victims of intelligence plots from the U.S. and U.K., and these kinds of regime tactics will resonate at home," Riedel said.

Asked whether the West can count on the Iranian public to question the intentions of its leaders to ensure that they don't produce the nuclear weapon Iranian claim to not want, Kemp was doubtful.

"We exaggerate the extent to which the Iranian public loves America and hates the regime," Kemp said, noting that if a Western power used military force against Iran, the public would more than likely rally around the government.

"They're very proud people and they don't want to be deprived of what they view as their legal right," Kupchan said. But for the average person, concern about the nuclear program "stops there," he said.

Although the Iranian public has historically looked favorably at Western culture, experts seem to agree that the West, and particularly the United States, has significantly lost influence among the public as Iran has become more isolated and turned inward.

"There are two clocks ticking here -- a nuclear clock and a reform clock. The policy problem for the West is the nuclear clock is likely to go ding first. ... Iran is much more likely to get nuclear capability before the reform movement matures, so I don't think that the man in the street is going to solve this problem," Kupchan said.

Source: United Press International

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