Caught between Nikes and Nukes Is Iran on the Brink of Change?

Iranians go to the polls Friday to elect a new president after an unusually heated election campaign. But even if reformist candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi beats the incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, will it make any difference to the country's nuclear ambitions?

By and Erich Follath

If the Israeli Air Force were to bomb Iran, it's a safe bet that the top-secret Iranian nuclear facility near Isfahan would be at the top of its list of targets.

The complex, less than 20 kilometers (12 miles) from Isfahan, a city of 1.5 million people, is buried in a dramatic desert landscape. A launching pad for anti-aircraft missiles juts into the sky on one of the hills surrounding the valley. Behind the pad, a series of fences and armed guards protect the center of the facility, which includes a uranium conversion plant, a zirconium processing plant and the new nuclear fuel processing plant.

On this day in April, the new plant is to be dedicated by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, 52, in the company of a few handpicked journalists, who are being allowed entry into the inner sanctum of Iran's nuclear program.

The tunnel entrances to underground production facilities are vaguely visible in the distance. The country now has an estimated 7,000 centrifuges for uranium enrichment up and running, a number that grows each week. They have placed Iran in a position to produce sufficient material to quickly build a nuclear weapon, which would abruptly transform its nuclear program from peaceful to military use -- if that is indeed what the Iranians want. The Islamic Republic is probably already a virtual nuclear power today.

In addition to the heavy water reactor near Arak, which could be placed into service in the next few years, and the Natanz uranium enrichment plant, experts are extremely concerned about what is happening in Isfahan. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his hardline government are already believed to have decided to attack Iran. According to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Netanyahu plans to give the new US government's efforts to achieve a negotiated solution until the end of the year to produce results. If they are unsuccessful, the paper writes, the Israelis will strike -- even without Washington's approval, if necessary.

Mohammed ElBaradei, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize and head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), has warned that such an attack could ignite a catastrophic conflagration throughout the Middle East. US expert David Albright believes that it will be virtually impossible to wipe out Iran's nuclear program militarily. The Israelis would have to bomb Iran for weeks, and yet would still not have eliminated a large number of facilities, according to Albright. Instead, he says, such attacks would only achieve one thing: They would unite Iranians behind their leadership and convince them, once and for all, of the need to build the bomb.

Officials in the West are clinging to the remote hope that Holocaust denier and Israel-hater Ahmadinejad will be voted out of office in Friday's presidential election. Nevertheless, the differences among the four candidates running for president are minimal when it comes to the nuclear issue. The speeches Ahmadinejad has been giving recently, in which he calls upon US President Barack Obama to "finally" follow his friendly words with "actions" and passionately defends Iran's "inalienable" right to uranium enrichment, seem aggressive and disturbing. He makes no mention of all the subterfuge, tricks and deception on the nuclear question, with which Iran, in the view of members of the United Nations Security Council, has forfeited its right to nuclear energy, at least temporarily.

Only Half the Truth

The West sees Iran as a nightmarish country home to a terrifying combination of sophisticated weapon technology and religious ideology based on 1,400-year-old martyr legends that emphasize suffering, a country that is not even deterred by the prospect of a mutually destructive apocalypse. This view of Iran portrays it as isolated and unpredictable, a wounded civilization whose leaders are determined to exact revenge on the West by backing radical groups, from Hamas to Hezbollah -- in short, a monolithic realm of evil.

But this portrayal reflects only half the truth, if that. Iran is a country of internal contradictions and diverging centers of power. It is everything but one-dimensional, a place where astonishing processes take place simultaneously -- and sometimes at cross purposes. Iran is best imagined as a sort of Vatican with elements of a parliamentary democracy and bits of North Korea.

The religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, 69, is the country's supreme authority. Although he remains largely above the fray of ordinary politics, he was suddenly sharply critical of his protégé Ahmadinejad's economic policy. Last Wednesday's televised debate between the president and his most promising challenger, reformist candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, 67, became a brutally open exchange. "You are driving Iran into dictatorship with your methods," the challenger jabbed at the incumbent. "Since you were elected, Iranians have been humiliated around the world by your extremist foreign policy."

Graphic: Nuclear facilities in Iran

Graphic: Nuclear facilities in Iran

For many in the United States, Iran is America's greatest enemy -- and yet the Iranians are probably the most pro-American population in the Middle East, with the exception of Israel. And when it comes to morals, the theocracy is not as monolithic as some claim. Although Iranian women are required to wear the headscarf, the country has produced some of the world's most creative fashion designers.

Iran is being tugged back and forth between Western consumerism and pride over its scientific advances. A country caught between Nikes and nukes, Iran wants state-of-the-art athletic shoes as much as it wants high-tech weapons. Anyone who hopes to understand this country must be, as the Iranians say, "posht-e parde," or "behind the veil." The Persian paradox consists of a blend of freedom and constraint, private frivolities and public discipline, professionalism and amateurism.

It is this odd mix that leads to significant surprises during this excursion into Iran's nuclear inner sanctum on a spring day, surprises which contradict the standard political rhetoric.

First-rate nuclear physicists work at the Isfahan complex. But immediately prior to the presidential visit, a technician is seen cursing as he searches for a wrench while repairing the roof of the high-tech plant. And the nuclear physicists out themselves as passionate gardeners: between buildings where the material for weapons of mass destruction is being produced, carefully tended flower beds are watered by automatic sprinklers.


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