Western pressure irks average Iranians

Threats of sanctions or military action worry some Iranians, but have united most here in defiance.

Kaveh Ahmadi, a taxi driver and veteran of the 1980-88 war with Iraq, was quivering with indignation as he wove his aging Iranian-made Paykan at high speed through the heavy evening traffic of Iran's capital, Tehran. An ad on the side of the road read "Nuclear energy is our indisputable right," a slogan now seen frequently on television and at public events.

"I've got two Iraqi bullets in my leg," he says. "It was Western countries that supported [Saddam Hussein] when he used chemical weapons against us. Now they destroy Iraq and lecture us on human rights. America killed more than a hundred thousand people when it dropped atomic bombs on Japan, but they won't even let us have nuclear energy."

The Iranian government accuses Western countries of trying to bully it into giving up its uranium-enrichment program, saying they want to deny Iran the benefits of modernity. The threat of Western sanctions or military action has worried some here. Others say the government uses it to divert attention away from economic woes. Still, Western pressure for the most part has inspired widespread anger and defiance.

"I can't see why others in the world can benefit from the use of nuclear energy but we shouldn't," says Hasan Mesbahi, a retired government employee. "If there is a military attack or sanctions, we should resist, defend ourselves, and put up with hardship."

He was speaking in the Ekbatan neighborhood near the airport in the west of Tehran. Ekbatan is an immense high-rise concrete housing estate that was originally designed in the shah's era but has ballooned since the Islamic revolution in 1979. Because people from many different social classes and backgrounds live there it is a good place to test opinion in a country where polling is infrequent and often inaccurate.

"It is very difficult to gauge if there is any opposition to the nuclear program," says Sadegh Zibakalam, professor of political science at Tehran University. "But all the indicators are that many people, including those who oppose the Islamic regime, tend to support the program. In a sense it has become an emotive nationalistic issue for Iranians like supporting their football team. Western opposition has actually benefited the hard-liners here."

Iranians have long been mistrustful of Western powers. They remember Britain's long exploitation of their oil resources and the US-led coup in the 1950s that ousted a popular nationalist prime minister.

Earlier this month the Iranian military carried out a series of major maneuvers in the Persian Gulf and announced the development of new weapons systems. At an annual military parade on April 18, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad promised to "cut off the hands" of any foreign aggressor. Analysts in Tehran say these shows of bravado were intended to bolster public confidence in the face of external threats - something that comes across on the street.

"I don't think military action is very likely because America has got into a quagmire in Iraq and won't risk getting into another one," says Reza Hashemi, loafing in the shade of a tree as he waited for passengers for his shared taxi. "But we are not a backward country, and if [a US attack] happens we will resist and retaliate."

While nationalist defiance rang loud in Ekbatan, some people were also critical of the government for escalating tensions with the West and bringing the danger of punitive action to Iran. "The government should have managed the situation better to prevent public opinion in the world from turning against us," says Hamid Ashuri, a mechanical engineer. "I worry about the present crisis."

Others see the nuclear issue as a political red herring in a country with high unemployment and an inflation rate of nearly 15 percent. "The government is using the situation to divert people's attention from more urgent social and economic issues," says Fatemeh Zahed, a former government employee out shopping for her family.

While debate on the nuclear issue has been stifled in public, there has been active opposition to the government's economic policies. This year's budget bill was challenged by the parliament and a series of strikes have signaled labor unrest. Economic sanctions, which the US is pushing for in the UN Security Council, could make things worse still.

"The national budget relies heavily on oil revenues and if exports are cut we cannot meet the budget and things will go to ruin," says Mrs. Zahed. "Access to nuclear technology might be our right, but there are more important things for the government to achieve."

Small-business owner Shahriar Rezaiee, says Iran could withstand a sanctions program because of its experience in the war, something echoed by several other Ekbatan residents. "We have already experienced this and coped with it," he says. "Achievements in domestic technology and production can compensate for the lack of foreign goods."

At an oil industry trade fair that opened in Tehran on Thursday, the mood was grim. There were far fewer exhibitors than in previous years and it was obvious that many projects in Iran's largest economic sector were in gridlock. "No foreign banks are prepared to finance projects in Iran because of the political situation," says a Western engineer with many years experience working in Iran's oil sector. "There hasn't been a big deal completed here for months and it doesn't look like any can be done anytime soon."

With so much grim economic news, some Ekbatan residents were putting their faith in alternative alliances, based in part on oil supplies, that promise to balance out Western hostility. "Sanctions are a much more dangerous threat than a military strike," said Ali Divsalar, an industrial engineer. "But even in the worst case I think Russia or China can come to our rescue."

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