12 February 2007

Iranians rally in defence of right to nuclear energy

Show of popular support boosts embattled President

12 February 2007
The Hindu

Iranians rally in defence of right to nuclear energy

Siddharth Varadarajan

TEHRAN: In a spectacle that was part scripted and part carnivalesque, thousands of schoolgirls gaily waved Iranian flags, sang songs, bellowed out slogans at the top of their voices condemning America and defending their "legitimate right to peaceful nuclear energy" before succumbing to the youthful diversions that any outing might provide: sharing snacks and laughter, and generally having a jolly good time.

Strong feelings

As the 28th anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution approached, the Iranian authorities had done their best to get the people of Tehran to demonstrate their support for the Government's nuclear plans.

By the time the grand rally in Tehran's Azadi Square ended on Sunday afternoon, it certainly seemed as if hundreds of thousands of citizens had heeded the call. "Some are basiji, or militia, and some are ordinary citizens," an Iranian photographer told this reporter. "But they are all here because everyone feels strongly about our right to nuclear energy."

Despite the early morning cold, the first lot of girls came streaming in at around 7.30. Some were in school uniform, others in black chadors, often with blue jeans visible underneath. As they assembled neatly right in front of the dais where President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was to make his address, the loudspeakers played an old revolutionary song, `Balkhizi' or `Stand up.' From the opposite entrance, though at some distance from the media's viewing stand, came the boys. Further away were two vast enclosures stretching up to the Azadi monument — the vast gateway built by the Shah in memory of his father but now an icon of the city — one for men, the other for women.

Rumours scotched

In his speech, Mr. Ahmadinejad began by attacking those who were spreading rumours that the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, was ailing. "With the blessings of God, the leader is in fine health and is carrying the flag of Iranian glory on his shoulders." After hailing the recent achievement of Iranian scientists in the fields of AIDS and spinal cord research, the President turned to the question of nuclear energy.

IAEA supervision

Iran's nuclear energy programme was under the complete supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency and all IAEA's reports had confirmed the fact that there had been no diversion for prohibited purposes, he said. "Despite the fact that they are supervising everything in Iran, America says it doesn't trust us. But they are not looking for trust. They are looking to deprive us of nuclear technology."

On Iraq, Mr. Ahmadinejad said the U.S. went in to find weapons of mass destruction and end dictatorship. "Today there is neither dictatorship nor WMDs. So why are you still there? What are you looking for?" Blaming the U.S. for provoking violence between Shias and Sunnis, he said the recent arrest of Iranian diplomats inside Iraq would get America nowhere.

'Face of Iran'

Giving an account of Iran's nuclear negotiations with the European Union, the Iranian president said the last time the Iranian fuel enrichment programme was suspended, it took two and a half years to be restarted. "We asked them why they are insisting on the suspension of enrichment as a precondition and they replied that they would lose face otherwise. But is the face of Iran not important?" he asked.

Despite Mr. Ahmadinejad toning down his nuclear rhetoric and refraining from escalating the standoff by making new announcements, Iranian analysts are not optimistic about the prospect of dialogue.

"So strong is the U.S. insistence on the suspension of enrichment that even the prospect of secret talks with the Europeans [where some of these conditions can be pre-negotiated] looks remote," said Mohammad Soltanifar of the Expediency Council's Centre for Strategic Research.

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