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THE WORLD : A show of sympathy for Iran at a Qatar forum : Opinions are strong and plentiful on both sides of whether Tehran's nuclear plans pose a regional threat.

November 13, 2009|Borzou Daragahi

DOHA, QATAR — It's a sentiment bubbling just below the surface of a lively and charged televised debate over whether to trust Iran not to build a nuclear weapon.

But it isn't until the last few minutes of the freewheeling and at times revealing hourlong discussion that a member of the studio audience finally drops the bomb.

"Why in the first place should Iran seek the trust of anyone?" he says. "Iran is an independent, sovereign country, and it has every single right to defend itself. If it wants a bomb, definitely it should have one."

Applause erupts.

"What I don't understand is this love for war and nuclear weapons," responds Baria Alamuddin, one of the panelists arguing that Iran cannot be trusted. "Don't people want to live? Don't people want to enjoy themselves?"

The emotionally charged debate, which will be broadcast seven times this weekend on BBC World, exposes a wellspring of anxiety and anger about Iran's nuclear program among those in the Middle East who would be caught in the crossfire of any war. Ultimately the proposition -- "This house trusts Iran not to build a nuclear bomb" -- narrowly fails, 48% to 52%.

But sympathy for Iran's nuclear ambitions evident in the eruption of applause is perhaps the most surprising outcome of the debate, part of a monthly series organized here by the Qatar Foundation and hosted by former BBC "Hardtalk" host Tim Sebastian.

For years, Western diplomats and analysts have been advising their governments that Arabs view Iran's nuclear program as a greater threat to regional stability than anything else, including longtime nuclear-armed nemesis Israel. But the response of an audience made up of mostly Anglophone Arab and Muslim elites as well as a smattering of expatriates suggests some support for Iran's nuclear ambitions.

"There is something called balance of power," says a man in the audience. "As long as there is Israel, we need a nuclear bomb."

The discussion features two diametrically opposed representatives of Iran's ideological spectrum. Voice of America commentator Alireza Nourizadeh, a fixture of Iran's exile opposition, argues against trusting Iran. Tehran University professor Mohammad Marandi articulates in flawless American English the Islamic Republic's view that its nuclear program is no cause for concern.

"Since the revolution, Iran has been trying to break the Western monopoly over high-tech research, development and industry," he says. "There is no doubt that oil will soon fail us. Such technologies must not be monopolized by a few powers."

Marandi and Iran expert Mahjoob Zweiri of Jordan argue that Western propaganda has bathed Iran's nuclear program in an ominous light, even though international inspectors have yet to find a smoking gun proving Iran has an active weapons program.

"Iran has a problem with perception," says Zweiri, of the Center for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan. "How the West perceived Iran is a matter" of importance.

Nourizadeh teams up with Lebanese journalist Alamuddin to argue that the nature and previous actions of the Islamic Republic make it untrustworthy.

"How can you trust a government that kills its own people, tortures them, rapes them, kills them on the streets of Tehran in front of your own eyes, and then the president comes and denies it and says that was a conspiracy?" Nourizadeh says, referring to the government's harsh treatment of protesters after the disputed June presidential election.

Many members of the audience also voice doubts about the Iranian leadership. Hostility to Israel aside, many Arabs continue to fear a government whose supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is officially regarded in Iran as God's representative on Earth.

"How can we trust that any supreme leader, now or future, will not issue a fatwa saying it's a Muslim duty to nuke or attack another nation?" says an Egyptian woman.

Qatar, about 100 miles across the Persian Gulf from the Iranian coast, could suffer the consequences of any war to get rid of Iran's nuclear program, or any attempt by Tehran to boost its power by making the bomb.

"What guarantee [is there] that Iran is not hiding something right now?" asks one Iranian Canadian woman, a resident of Qatar. "They have hidden so many things. And the government is so unpredictable."

An Iraqi woman in the audience voices exasperation about the future of the Middle East locked in an arms race.

"We're going to lie between two powerful countries, as in Iran and Israel, with nuclear weapons," she says. "Where will this region be?"

Alamuddin responds: "To answer your question, this region will go to hell if the two powers have nuclear weapons."

--

daragahi@latimes.com

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