Iran nuclear showdown darkens rare patch of common ground with United States

Monday, October 13th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) _ At a Tehran University forum on nuclear technology, a bright green banner proclaimed the nation's ``absolute right'' to build reactors. Nearby, a student took notes in a folder decorated with Uncle Sam chasing an elusive atom around the Middle East.

The scene last week was another snapshot from one side of the huge gap between Iran and the United States. The tremors over Iran's nuclear ambitions have apparently wrenched it even wider at a delicate time.

Russia is building a nuclear reactor for Iran that the United States fears could be part of efforts to produce material for atomic weapons. In response, the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency has set an Oct. 31 deadline for Iran to prove it has no secret agenda for producing nuclear weapons.

Iran is also being pressed to sign an additional protocol to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty giving U.N. inspectors unfettered access to any site.

The tension has reduced hopes that shared regional interests _ topped by Afghanistan and Iraq _ could draw the United States and Iran into the most productive dialogue since relations ended after the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Instead, many Iranian leaders and opinion-shapers have revived the bitterness that followed President Bush's ``axis of evil'' label last year. They see Washington directing the international pressure to clarify Iran's nuclear objectives and capabilities _ though the European Union and others also fully support unrestricted U.N. inspections of nuclear sites.

``It's a classic case of two sides of the same coin,'' said Davoud Hermidas Bavand, a Tehran-based political analyst. ``The United States sees big worries. The Iranians say they are being unfairly bullied.''

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei _ the pinnacle of power in Iran _ claims the United States wants to cripple Iran's economic potential by blocking nuclear development. It's one of the few messages that unite feuding reformers and conservatives.

``There is the right for all countries to have the peaceful use of nuclear technology,'' an Iranian atomic scientist, Mohammad Kazem Marashi, told a gathering of Tehran University students and professors. ``Every time someone mentions nuclear power all they can think of is bombs.''

Weapons are clearly on the minds of Washington and some allies.

The White House fears a chilling scenario: Iran could develop nuclear warheads for its Shahab-3 missiles, which could reach as far as Israel. That could touch off a regional arms race or an Israeli pre-emptive strike _ as in 1981 when Israeli warplanes hit an Iraqi nuclear reactor.

Iran insists it has nothing to hide and wants nuclear plants for research and power _ looking decades ahead to when its oil reserves dwindle.

But there is resistance to the U.N. demands that Iran allow international inspections. The Iranian leadership wants assurances that the nuclear reviews won't turn into spying, with inspectors combing ministries and offices.

That's as far as the objections go for the moment. Iran does not want an impasse that ends up in the U.N. Security Council, which could lead to international sanctions and a new host of problems for the ruling theocracy.

``Every way you look at it, the stakes are very high and getting higher,'' said Jonathan Stevensen, a regional analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.

It's also thrown obstacles into what could have been a rare patch of common ground between Iran and the United States.

Iran sits between two of Washington's biggest burdens: Afghanistan and Iraq. And Iran shares the West's immediate goals in those countries.

A modernized Afghanistan would open important new commercial routes for Iran. A stabilized Iraq could boost Iran's regional power as the ally of Iraq's Shiite Muslim majority.

Iranian and American envoys have taken part in Afghan meetings. Iran is expected to attend an Iraq donors' conference in Spain later this month.

But _ for the moment _ much of the diplomatic energy is being diverted to the nuclear dispute.

The United States seeks to keep a united front with European allies, although some have said Iran should be allowed to pursue nuclear power if inspections are thorough.

Iran, meanwhile, must deal with internal quarrels on how far to push nuclear development.

A Russian-built reactor could go into service as early as 2005, and Iran says it will continue to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes. Highly enriched uranium is needed for nuclear weapons and lower grades are used in power plants and research.

Some hard-line groups have openly urged Iran to develop nuclear weapons, citing neighboring Pakistan's nuclear program and the belief that Israel has nuclear warheads. Israel has never admitted to having a nuclear program.

In July, the conservative Students' Islamic Association urged Iran's government to ``openly and seriously'' develop nuclear arms as ``deterrence against our enemies.'' Others have also insisted Iran should hold open the right to develop such weapons.