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Puffed up with grand notions of their country's historical greatness, the mullahs have convinced themselves that their Middle Eastern importance and cunning diplomacy give Iran a tactical edge in the nuclear showdown. They scoff at U.S. arguments that Iran's huge oil and gas reserves make nuclear power needless and point out that before the 1979 Islamic revolution, Washington supported the Shah's plan to build nuclear-power plants. In spite of bitter differences with the mullahs over other issues, like freedom and human rights, moderate leaders, including Khatami, have embraced Iran's nuclear aspirations. The regime has won some key diplomatic victories, such as Europe's formal acknowledgment in the Nov. 14 agreement that Iran has the right to peaceful nuclear technology. This affirms that under IAEA supervision, Tehran is technically entitled to operate facilities, including its two Russian-built light-water reactors in Bushehr, a pilot enrichment facility in Natanz, a future uranium-conversion site in Isfahan and a heavy-water production plant in Arak.
Many Iranian citizens, like U.S. officials, assume the mullahs are seeking A-bombs. The public debate has not been about whether Iran should have nuclear technology but about how to resist international pressure to bar it. Millions of Iranians are avidly following the showdown on Iranian TV talk shows, and the ruling clerics have earned more popular support than they have had in years. Even Iranians who dislike the mullahs are showing pride in the idea of Iran becoming an atomic power. "If the West has nuclear weapons, we need them as well," says accountant Amir Taheri, 25, as he and two female friends sip milk shakes at a U.S.-style shopping-center food court in affluent north Tehran.
Iranians believe the clerics have plenty of legitimate reasons to want atomic weapons: they feel threatened by the U.S.; Iran is encircled by nuclear powers like Israel, Russia, Pakistan and India; and the nation was victimized by Saddam Hussein's chemical attacks in the war with Iraq in the 1980s. Some Iranians think possession of the Bomb would make the Islamic regime untouchable. Others are worried that it could lead to North Korea--style isolation and impoverishment.
In private, hard-liners are high-fiving one another because of what they consider declining odds that the second-term Bush Administration will pursue regime change in Tehran. "Don't show your teeth if you can't bite," says Amir Mohebbian, political editor of the conservative Resalat newspaper. Observing U.S. difficulties in taming the Iraqis, Iranian leaders are far less worried than they were two years ago that U.S. forces might motor on toward Tehran. Some commentators are mocking Washington's tough anti-Iran rhetoric, confident that no U.S. allies have the stomach for a new military venture. The mullahs seem sure that Bush doesn't either, despite his "axis of evil" talk. They know U.S. forces are stretched tight and oil prices, important to the U.S. economy, are up to $50 per bbl. In any case, Tehran officials say, Iran's substantial trade ties with Russia and China probably ensure a Security Council veto if the U.S. pursues U.N. sanctions.