Iran's Future: Nuclear Controversy, Presidential Elections

Alex Chadwick talks with Mike Shuster about recent political developments in Iran. Shuster has just returned from that nation, and will discuss Iran's role in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty talks at the United Nations, and presidential elections scheduled for next month.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

More on Iran now. The country is subject to a lot of pressure at the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty talks under way at the UN. Iran says it will resume enriching stocks of uranium. This is a process necessary for making nuclear energy or nuclear weapons. The US, Britain, France and Germany suspect the Islamic republic is trying to build a bomb, but the question of Iran's long-term ambitions is unresolved. NPR's Mike Shuster is just back this week from a reporting trip there.

Mike, what exactly is the Iranian government's position on its nuclear plants?

MIKE SHUSTER reporting:

Well, in one sense, it's quite simple. The Iranian government says they have every right under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and international law to pursue peaceful nuclear technology. They want a nuclear power industry and, therefore, they say they have every right to the technology that allows them to do that including enriching uranium.

However, it's become far more complex because for 18 years, the Iranian government pursued these nuclear activities in secret, thus giving rise to great suspicions internationally about their ultimate goals. And so they've been in negotiations with the Europeans, mainly with Germany, France and Great Britain, to try to figure out a way of getting that technology but giving guarantees to the West that they won't pursue nuclear weapons. And while that's been going on, they have suspended uranium enrichment but almost every day or every other day, some senior Iranian official says, `We're going to start this again. We're going to start to enrich uranium again,' because they're not satisfied with the outcome and the pace of the talks with the Europeans. So we're right in the middle of this now and it's difficult from day to day to understand what the Iranian government's position really is.

CHADWICK: What about the position of the Iranian people, if that matters over there? Are they at one with the government on this issue, or does the country fear it's going to be dragged into some kind of international confrontation?

SHUSTER: Actually, this issue may be the only issue in which the Iranian public and the Iranian government seem to be in agreement, and this comes from the fact that the Iranian public do not like when external pressure is brought to bear on their country and when there are threats. And there have been clearly implied threats, both from the United States and from Israel, that if this problem is not solved diplomatically there may be a military option, and that does nothing but bring Iranians together with the government that many of them do not like. And when you talk to Iranians of all stripes, they invertibly tell you, `We believe that we have the right to nuclear technology to benefit our society, but we don't want nuclear weapons.' That's their view and that's, in fact, the stated view of the Iranian government.

CHADWICK: Now this is not a popular government there. You say there are elections, presidential elections there next month. Who is in contention for the presidency, and how much difference will the outcome of this election make?

SHUSTER: Well, it's a very complex presidential election. There are half a dozen so-called conservatives that have declared their candidacy, nearly that number of reformists. Everyone is waiting to see whether the former president, Ali Rafsanjani, might declare; he would be the most well-known candidate. The picture is very confused. A group called the Guardian Council this month is going to vet these candidates and it may disqualify some. It's very difficult to predict the outcome of the election. It will be important--there's no question about that--especially in determining whether a large number of Iranians will go to the polls and whether the new government will have legitimacy. And it's unfortunately impossible to predict how the outcome of this election may have an impact on these nuclear negotiations.

CHADWICK: Have the elections in Iraq that took place in January had any kind of influence in Iran?

SHUSTER: I think they have. I think the Iranians are watching the political process very carefully in Iraq. Of course, the two countries fought a long and devastating war in the 1980s. So each country has a keen interest in the political developments of the other. Iranians generally like what they see in the Iraqi political process. They see Shiites coming to power. Iran is a Shiite-dominated nation, and so they see an Iran-friendly government emerging in Iraq. The Iranians say they want stability. They like this process. They want to contribute to stability. They believe that stability will allow the Americans to leave. Many officials and analysts told me it's in Iran's national interest to see the American troops out, and so if stability helps that process along, they're all for it.

CHADWICK: NPR's Mike Shuster, just back from Tehran, Iran. Thank you, Mike.

SHUSTER: You're welcome, Alex.

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