Every February 11 — the anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution — Iran’s leaders address a massive public gathering at Azadi square in the western part of the capital. Simultaneous celebrations are held in all cities and provinces across the country. This year, however, the preparations are even more elaborate than before, with local TV channels showing inspiring montages of earlier demonstrations and historic footage of Ayatollah Khomeini’s dramatic return to Tehran from exile in Paris 28 years ago. The purpose behind the mobilisation, presumably, is to underline the continuity between the azadi, or freedom, which was won then, and Iran’s resistance to international pressure on the nuclear front today.
Though there is widespread apprehension about the prospects of conflict and a fear that the sanctions imposed last December will soon be tightened, the sovereign right to civilian nuclear power is something most Iranians are prepared to support.
"If the Americans had picked any other issue to confront the mullahs, such as human rights or democracy, people wouldn’t have rallied around the government," a former editor who preferred not to be identified said. "But the nuclear issue is different. Rightly or wrongly, most Iranians agree that the country should not be denied access to knowledge, which is the way the issue is posed here in the media."
The highlight of Sunday’s festivities will be the major speech President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is to deliver. Some analysts here believe he will make an important announcement about the progress that has been made by Iranian atomic scientists in the installation and running of 328 centrifuges, the complex machines used to enrich natural uranium and make it suitable for nuclear fuel.
Though centrifuges may be used to enrich uranium into bomb-grade fissile material, the facility at Natanz, where Iran’s enrichment plant is located, will operate under international safeguards prohibiting the diversion of nuclear equipment and material for military purposes.
But whether the announcement will serve as the springboard for a new round of diplomacy and compromise, as many here hope, or merely to an escalation of the confrontation, remains to be seen. Claiming a technological victory, for example, would allow the President to offer a compromise of some sort, such as a temporary suspension. But Seyid Rasool Moosavi, director-general of the Foreign Ministry-run Institute for Political and International Studies (IPIS), is sceptical. "I think it is impossible to suddenly stop the centrifuges. They spin at such a high speed that they would be damaged," he said.
Asked about the possibility of placing Natanz on `warm standby’ — where the centrifuges keep spinning but no uranium gas is run through them — Dr. Moosavi insisted the key was whether the West was prepared to accept Iran’s rights or not. "If they accept Iran’s rights to the fuel cycle, I don’t think the Iranian leadership would be so rigid as to say we must accomplish our goals today or tomorrow."
Though the arguments on what Iran’s optimal strategy should be are familiar, what has added a new element into the already volatile debate is the sudden ratcheting up of military pressure by the U.S.
"Iranian people are concerned that the new American military deployment is not just for pressure but actual military use. The Bush administration is gradually trying to create evidence against Iran ... the objective is that little by little they can mobilise Congress and public opinion for possible military action," says Davoud Hermidas Bavand, a professor of international law at Tehran University.
"When Congress says any use of the military should only be with Congressional authorisation, this means they are admitting the use of force as a possibility," he adds.
Noting the views of some in the U.S. establishment who favour a "limited military strike" against Iranian civilian nuclear installations, Dr. Moosavi said this would be a "strategic mistake because Iran will surely have its response."
A critic of Mr. Ahmadinejad’s abrasive handling of the nuclear issue, Prof. Bavand said the President’s rhetoric as well as his poor handling of the economy "led to the loss of his credibility as a leader." The people of Iran, he said, wanted relations with the U.S. to improve but neither Tehran nor Washington seems keen to take the initiative.
’Iran not to blame’
Asked whether Iran’s past rhetoric against Israel had not narrowed the circle of its friends at a time when the U.S. was trying to isolate Tehran, Dr. Moosavi said Iran was not to blame for the war of words.
Iran, he said, supported the Palestinians but "it is impossible to liberate them or al-Quds with a nuclear bomb!" "When in [President] Khatami’s time Iran had suspended its nuclear activities, the Israeli Prime Minister threatened to bomb us. Why was there no condemnation of Israel at the time?"