The Nuclear Debate from Iran's Viewpoint

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How are Iranians reacting to prospects of a confrontation with the United States over Iran's nuclear ambitions? Hadi Semati of the University of Tehran, a visiting scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center, offers his insights to Jacki Lyden.

JACKI LYDEN, host:

Last Friday Iran's President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, once again denounced Israel. Ahmadinejad's comments came at the end of a week that began with press reports that the U.S. is preparing contingency plans for an attack on Iran, including options that could include using nuclear bunker-busting bombs.

In response, Iran declared that it had already successfully enriched uranium, claims that have not been verified by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Its chief, Mohamed ElBaradei, visited Iran this past week.

Hadi Semati says the news of a possible strike on Iran has roiled the American public far more than the Iranian one. Semati is a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center here in Washington.

While no one is saying an attack on Iran is likely, we asked him what the Iranian public's response might be.

Mr. HADI SEMATI (Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington, D.C.): It is highly likely that they would rally along the flag. They would not like to see another war, but I think at this point they see this as an unprovoked, unreasonable stand by the U.S., and any military strike would anger them more so.

And people are worried, of course. The rhetoric over the last few weeks have been pretty tough from Washington, ever since Vice President Cheney spoke at the APAC meeting on consequences for Iran. And then everybody else down the line talked about the same. That has raised the level of tension to some extent, but I think not substantially. I don't think that they, the public, feel that they would do something like that. Neither Americans nor the Iranian officials would actually submit or accept this confrontation trajectory.

LYDEN: Did a majority of Iranians believe that Iran has the right to become a nuclear power when its president seems to be saying we're doing this so we can attack Israel, we're going to wipe it off the map?

Mr. SEMATI: Yeah, I think probably the single most important gift to the Bush administration and the new conservatives in Washington has been Ahmadinejad's rhetoric. But in a way, even that, people who started raising the question, this is not what you want, you don't want to pick up a fight with the U.S. or Israelis, that's not our fight, that sentiment is still there. And certainly people are raising questions now, that what are the use of such harsh rhetoric?

LYDEN: Words have consequences.

Mr. SEMATI: Oh, absolutely, words have consequences. Especially in our region.

LYDEN: Some of the news reports this week suggested that the real U.S. intention in Iran is regime change, as we had seen in Iraq. And I'm reminded of a conversation I had with a close friend in Tehran. He said when it came to promoting democracy in the region, he said, you know, democracy is not like Nescafe. You cannot just add water and stir.

Mr. SEMATI: Nobody in Tehran, nobody believes that the true American intention is disarmament in this nuclear sort of confrontation. The way they, it wasn't the ultimate objective in Iraq either. For them, this is about the character of the regime.

And there is a minority, I would say, in Tehran, among the hardcore radical conservatives, that actually would love to see an American strike, and for many reasons. Chief among them would be they think that a military strike is not going to be efficient and it's not going to achieve its objectives. It's going to rise up Muslim states' support for Iran and sympathy for Iran. Iran would be another time a victim of American aggression, like in the last 50 years. It will really boost up support for Ahmadinejad and the conservative government in particular. And once and for all it will further humiliate the U.S.

So that all of those in their sight, in their calculations, is actually not a bad thing. It makes sense if you put yourself in their position, the way they construct the argument.

LYDEN: What about the movement of political reform in Iran? I mean, even before this sort of talk became quite as prevalent as it is right now, is it dead with the election of this hard-line President Ahmadinejad?

Mr. SEMATI: I wouldn't call it dead. I would say it's been extremely demoralized and, for the time being and for some time to come, I would say they have been sidelined. They are trying to go though this revitalization process, but I think it will take some time.

And even, with such a movement, if it was, if it were strong enough, a military action against Iran would put the reformist camp, it would put them in a very difficult position. And I think on that issue there is a widespread consensus and belief that the forces will rally behind Iran's case, even the moderate forces, the reformists, even I would say the secular forces of genuine interest in change. So in a way you are faced with a very grim lose-lose situation on the democracy promotion front, on the security front, and on the public appeal. And the only thing that the U.S. has in Iran is the public appeal, and they're going to lose that one too if there is any military incursion. And I'm almost certain that the military strike is not going to achieve anything.

LYDEN: You mean you don't think it would stop the nuclear program?

Mr. SEMATI: Oh, no, definitely not. That might be one of the unintentional consequences of U.S. policy, that has reinforced the nationalism and the national drive for a nuclear energy, a nuclear program. And Iran doesn't seem to be, given the rhetoric over the last few weeks, doesn't seem to be backing off from that.

LYDEN: And you certainly don't see people rising up in response to overthrow of the government.

Mr. SEMATI: Oh, definitely not. I don't think that, I mean anybody who fantasizes about, you know, the military action against Iran, a surgical operation resulting in people mobilizing against the government, toppling the Iranian regime, it's, that's really fantasy.

LYDEN: Thank you very much.

Hadi Semati is a public policy scholar visiting from Tehran at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars here in Washington.

Thanks again.

Mr. SEMATI: Thank you very much. Than you for having me.

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