Iran Nuclear Conflict: Tehran Unwilling to Compromise Despite American Overtures

By Dieter Bednarz and Erich Follath

Three months after the disputed presidential election, Iran's leadership is more confident than ever. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has provoked the West at the UN General Assembly, while at home the opposition continues to be brutally repressed. There is little hope of progress at the negotiations which begin in Switzerland on Thursday.

Parvin Fahimi will be out there on the front line again, risking life and limb. She'll continue to take up her protest signs and shout "Down with the dictatorship!" as she did most recently on Iran's "Jerusalem Day" last Friday. Fahimi, 53, is a strong personality, a leader of street protests and an icon of the Iranian opposition against President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's regime.

"I'm also just a normal housewife," she says, readjusting her black chador inside her apartment in the middle-class Tehran neighborhood of Apadana. "But in my homeland, if you want justice and freedom, you have to put everything else on hold."

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Photo Gallery: Back in Power in Iran

Fahimi's apartment is a shrine, a memorial to her murdered son, Sohrab Aarabi. Dozens of photos of Sohrab line the walls, as if to make sure the memory of her beloved youngest son will never fade. There's Sohrab serious over his schoolbooks, Sohrab energetic on the soccer field, Sohrab looking pensive during a break at school. Sohrab, who had so many plans, who wanted to discover the world and experience first love. Sohrab, who became a martyr -- against his will.

Deep lines of sorrow have formed around his mother's eyes, and her voice breaks as she tells her story. But then she composes herself again, holding tightly to her notebook, a last anchor documenting everything. She still finds it all so difficult to believe.

Women and Children Beaten

The third day after the "stolen election" on June 12, massive demonstrations took place on the streets of Tehran. Parvin Fahimi was there with her four sons, but they became separated in the chaos. The Basij militia, Ahmadinejad's thugs, arrived. People fled into doorways and found detours home. By late morning, Siavash, 23, Siamak, 27, and Sohail, 25, had made their way back to the family apartment. Only Sohrab, 19, was missing.

The odyssey that followed was a dreadful emotional rollercoaster ride for Fahimi. She took her son's photograph to all of Tehran's authorities. She visited police headquarters, spent the night in front of Tehran's notorious Evin prison, and screamed at officials in the public prosecutor's office, after having been told her son's name was "marked" and he was being investigated as a potential ringleader. She was offered hope -- Sohrab was under arrest but in good health, and would contact her soon.

During her desperate search, Fahimi viewed dozens of police photographs of unidentified bodies. Again and again, she saw women and children being beaten in prison cells. Then, after more than three weeks, came the awful truth -- Sohrab was dead. The death certificate issued by a medical officer tersely stated that he had been hit in the chest with a bullet.

His mother still doesn't know if her son really died the night of the demonstration, or if he was tortured and then killed in prison. Opposition leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mahdi Karroubi visited to offer their condolences, and thousands showed their solidarity at the funeral march held 40 days after Sohrab was buried.

Fahimi also lost her husband two years ago to a brain tumor. That was fate, she says. But now, to lose her youngest child -- that, Fahimi says, was a crime. "What keeps me alive," she explains, "is the certainty that Sohrab didn't die in vain." As she shows her guests to the door on a Tuesday evening shortly before midnight, the call to prayer begins to sound from the rooftops -- "Allahu akbar," God is great. It's also the code word for Iran's resistance, whose symbolic color is green.

Last-Ditch Attempt

It's now four months on from the election and tensely awaited talks between Iran and the permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany, are about to begin. It's the first time in decades that a high-level American government representative will be present. William Burns, under secretary of state under US President Barack Obama, will travel to Switzerland on Oct. 1 to participate in the discussions -- without preconditions. The Republican opposition in Washington has ranted that it's an unacceptable concession to a "rogue" state. It's more of a last-ditch attempt to get Tehran to see reason on the matter of nuclear weapons, counter Obama's confidantes. Together with the other participating countries, Burns will offer Tehran a packet of economic and diplomatic incentives if it will abandon or at least suspend its program of uranium enrichment, which many in the international community suspect is a possible first step toward building a nuclear bomb.

If Iran's leaders persist in their stubbornness, however, America and its allies will push for significantly harsher sanctions. The mullah state doesn't seem concerned, however. "Do you really believe there are sanctions that can hit us that hard?" asks Iran's top nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, during a two-hour interview with SPIEGEL.

What will happen if the negotiating parties walk away from Geneva empty-handed? What if it comes to a gasoline embargo against Tehran, a move which -- despite Iran's assertions to the contrary -- could hit the country hard, since Iran imports more than a third of its fuel? What will happen if Israel's hardliner Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decides on a military strike against Iran's nuclear facilities, sites Israel has come to view as a threat to its own existence in the wake of the Iranian president's many provocative statements?

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