TEHRAN — From this country's divided political sphere to its disaffected streets, one thing binds Iranians of all ideologies: a fervent belief in the Islamic Republic's right to its nuclear program.
Even Iranians who oppose weapons development, including some members of the government, insist that the nation has a right to the technology. In a country that still tends to think of itself as a superpower, nuclear capabilities represent progress and modernity to a people hypersensitive to any perceived inequities.
"Iran has paid dearly, really dearly, to prove its independence internationally," said Ali Akbar Salehi, Iran's former representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations' nuclear watchdog agency. "Maybe we made mistakes in the past, but we want to decide our own destiny. We don't want others to decide for us."
While Iran's nuclear negotiations with Britain, France and Germany dragged on at the IAEA's Vienna headquarters in recent weeks, student organizations and hard-line political parties staged angry pro-nuclear demonstrations on the streets of Tehran. Conservative newspapers ran menacing editorials warning negotiators against caving in to Western demands.
"Depriving Iran of a nuclear fuel cycle," warned an editorial in the Kayhan newspaper, "is not a forgivable sin." The message to negotiators was plain: Iran was in no mood to relinquish its nuclear research. Any Iranian agreement to relinquish nuclear research or uranium enrichment would spark political uproar at home, analysts here say.
"None of the political groups can dare to say that we don't need nuclear technology," said Sayed Mustafa Taj-Zadeh, an advisor to Mohammad Khatami, the country's mostly sidelined reformist president.
Iran insists that its nuclear work is meant only for energy, but the U.S. accuses it of secretly working to build weapons.
In Iran, the nuclear debate has become the defining issue in the heated struggles between reform and conservatism, and engagement with the West or continued isolation. The bloodshed in Iraq has made Iranians more confident that the U.S. can't afford to back up its threats with military force, and strengthened the case for taking a hard stand against Western demands.
In the compromise reached last week between Iran and negotiators for the three European nations, the Islamic Republic agreed to temporarily suspend uranium enrichment, which can produce either nuclear fuel or material for atomic warheads. But symptoms of Iran's internal struggle over the nation's nuclear future were plain during the European talks. The negotiations were delayed by Tehran's flip-flopping on key issues, greeted with outrage by Iran's hard-liners and marked by Iranian rhetorical shifts over what, exactly, had been agreed.
The nuclear standoff with the West comes at a time when Iran's conservative mullahs have consolidated power and are running the country virtually unopposed. The brief spell of reformist fever and whispers of a cultural and international opening that swept the country in the late 1990s and early in this decade have been smothered, analysts say.
Iran's hard-line Guardian Council, which answers to supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, banned reformist candidates from running for parliament in February, ensuring that its conservative allies would sweep the elections. President Khatami will remain in office until spring but has proved a relatively weak politician who has been in effect neutralized by his rivals' overwhelming force.
Power, however, hasn't created consensus among Iran's conservatives. They remain sharply divided among themselves, especially on the question of nuclear weapons.
In a country sandwiched between two nations that have been invaded by U.S.-led troops, religious conservatives believe that a nuclear arsenal is a crucial tool to solidify the Islamic Republic's power in the region and create a defense against attack. Hard-liners in Iran's parliament already have threatened to force the government to resume uranium enrichment.
But other conservatives now advocate an easing of Iran's defiance in favor of a more diplomatic approach that would, they hope, lead to a warming of trade ties with the West. Known as the "neoconservatives," they advocate a crackdown within Iranian society coupled with an opening to the outside world. They contend that Iran can benefit from the economic and trade incentives offered by Europeans in exchange for a nuclear deal.
Many Iranian leaders now argue -- at least in public -- that nuclear weapons are a liability that would only invite attack from abroad. Iranian politicians and clerics have repeatedly said that nuclear weapons violate the nation's religious convictions, and the Foreign Ministry says Khamenei has issued a fatwa, or religious edict, against them.