There is virtually no domestic or foreign policy issue about which there exists a consensus among Iranians. The nuclear issue is, however, an exception. The two main political camps, the conservatives and reformists, both support Iran’s overall policy on the nuclear issue. Even those Iranians who are critical or oppose the Islamic regime support its nuclear program. The nuclear issue has been turned into a national cause, like the war against Iraq, and Iranians tend to perceive the country’s nuclear ambitions with a sense of pride and patriotism. Even many Iranians who are not articulate about the details of the country’s nuclear program regard it as an achievement.
Part of the reason for this nationalist feeling is the regime’s sustained and effective campaign to justify the country’s nuclear program. The nuclear issue has been portrayed by the Islamic leaders (both conservatives as well as reformists) as a struggle between Iran and its powerful enemy, the United States.
One element of the regime’s argument is the legitimate right that Iran enjoys under international conventions, including the NPT, to pursue its peaceful nuclear program. Iran’s enemies, state the regime’s media, are denying its legitimate right to progress and development. "The arrogant powers deny the others the possibility of developing their nuclear industry in order to keep them dependent on the western powers, dependent on their technology and know-how, and subsequently to weaken their independence," said the Iranian supreme leader during a speech to the country’s atomic energy officials in January 2005.
The next line of defense adopted by the Iranian leadership concerns the vast benefits that the acquisition of nuclear technology would bring for Iran. Iranians are constantly educated on the uses and benefits of the nuclear industry in the medical field, in industry and agriculture. The state run media also provide extensive coverage on the future of nuclear energy as "the cheapest energy". Nuclear power is portrayed as the future source of generating electricity in the world. There are frequent reports on the decisions by various countries to build new nuclear-powered electricity generating plants.
Next is the commercial consideration. Iran has vast deposits of uranium. If it can master uranium enrichment technology, and given its rich uranium deposits, the country can become an exporter of enriched uranium for use in nuclear power plants. Iran’s enemies, suggest the Iranian leaders, are struggling to block Iran’s opportunity to become an international supplier of enriched uranium on the world market. "Even if Iran’s hydrocarbon sources were to last forever", stated Doctor Hasan Ruhani, the chief Iranian nuclear negotiator, in February of this year, "there are no logical reasons why Iran should not become a leading supplier of uranium as fuel for nuclear power plants in the world."
The arguments in support of Iran continuing its nuclear program have become such a nationalistically sensitive issue that to give in to western demands would be tantamount to treason–to giving away part of Iran’s soil to a foreign country. Many Iranians feel that the West’s demand that Iran halt its nuclear program, and particularly to abandon or freeze its pursuit of uranium enrichment, is an unjust request. In fact, many Islamic hardliners are pressing Iran to leave the NPT altogether and pursue its nuclear program irrespective of what the world might think.
It was against this backdrop that the conservative-dominated Iranian parliament (Majlis) passed a bill on May 15, 2005, compelling the government to make every effort to pursue the country’s nuclear program. Out of a total of 256 deputies present during the voting, 188 voted in favor of the bill. Another hundred or so, who abstained from voting, were actually supporting a more radical bill advocating that Iran leave the NPT altogether. One of their leading figures stated that, "[since] the US and its Zionist ally would eventually take Iran to the Security Council and sanction us for our nuclear program, why waste our time and wait for such an eventuality?"
It would be very difficult to imagine how, under present conditions, any government could give in to the West’s demand to permanently freeze Iran’s pursuit of uranium enrichment. Yet many moderate Iranians are aware that any international sanctions against Iran would hit the country’s economy. There is still room for a compromise whereby Iran will maintain the "voluntary" freeze on its enrichment program and in return the West will assist Iran in its nuclear program as well as providing additional inducements.
Such a compromise is the only way to make a deal. Otherwise, the future will be bleak not only for Iran but for the whole region.