Inside the real Iran
Despite the welcome for their President's nuclear bragging and anti-Israel rhetoric, many Iranians have private worries about the economy - and the threat of war. By Angus McDowall in Tehran and Raymond Whitaker


Iran's turbulent President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was compared to Saddam Hussein yesterday by a senior Israeli figure as the rhetoric and recriminations over the Iranian nuclear programme surged ever higher.

On Friday Mr Ahmadinejad said Israel was a "rotten, dried tree" that would be annihilated by "one storm", increasing fears over what Iran might do with the nuclear weapons it is presumed to be seeking. Shimon Peres, the veteran Israeli statesman, retorted that he sounded like Iraq's fallen despot, adding: "Ahmadinejad will end up like Saddam Hussein."

This followed moments of sheer surrealism earlier in the week, when the President told a rapturous crowd in the eastern city of Mashhad that Iranian scientists had successfully enriched uranium, despite the bullying of Western powers. "Iran is now a nuclear power," he said. Moments later, against the same doves-of-peace backdrop, students danced with enormous plastic vials representing enriched uranium.

The national pride that greeted Mr Ahmadinejad's announcement was heartfelt, and showed how far many Iranians mistrust foreign powers. "We have to resist and achieve things like this that are our legal right," said Kambiz Bayat, a former civil servant. "Fortunately, we are used to hardship. In the [Iran-Iraq] war we went through periods without anything. I have brought up my children to learn they must be ready for such difficulties."

So is Iran a nation of zealots, united behind its messianic President? Is George Bush justified in contemplating the use of tactical nuclear weapons to eradicate the threat from Tehran, as the veteran investigative journalist Seymour Hersh charged last week?

Many years and much technological development lie between enriching uranium by 3.5 per cent for use in nuclear reactors, which is what Iran claims to have done, and the 90 per cent enrichment needed for warheads. But the more extravagant the Iranian President's language, the less doubt there appears to be that his country will inevitably get nuclear weapons.

What may be less obvious is that as Mr Ahmadinejad is using the issue to overshadow his unpopularity on other matters. Four months ago he was in crisis, reeling from stinging attacks made by critics within and outside his regime. But as he confronts the West with ever greater brio, his domestic opponents find it harder to challenge him in public since to do so looks unpatriotic and divisive.

Behind this fa├žade of togetherness, however, the cracks are very real. The firebrand President has already faced several revolts in a parliament controlled by members of what should be his own faction. And the pragmatic former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, his defeated rival in the elections last year, remains an influential opponent.

It is unclear where the true sentiments of other senior regime figures lie. On Friday the head of the Guardian Council, a constitutional watchdog with extensive powers, joined the chorus of officials attacking the US, calling it a "decaying power". And the military, which is believed to represent one of the President's power bases, has in recent weeks carried out major manoeuvres in the Persian Gulf and announced the development of new weapons systems.

But for all the public support of Iran's right to a nuclear programme, real doubts persist about the cost of it. The Iranian new year dawned three weeks ago - and on the streets people are worried what 1385 holds in store. "Will there be a war?" Iranians frequently ask foreigners. In public, Western officials have dismissed talk of military action, but speculation remains high.

Many people privately say the President should concentrate on the issues that brought him to power, such as corruption, drug abuse and the economy.

"As far as finance is concerned, sanctions are already under way," said a foreign banker in Tehran. "All the foreign banks now are too worried about the political situation and have just stopped lending. That's having a really big impact on all the major industrial projects that Iran is trying to carry out."

"Mr Ahmadinejad means well, but he's not experienced and this is just causing us problems," said a taxi driver who served in the Revolutionary Guard during the war with Iraq. "It's getting very dangerous."

Iran's acquisition of a full nuclear cycle... is more significant than qualifying for the World Cup... a memorable event in Iran's history

Sharare-ha va Shokufe-ha (Flames and Blossoms)

Iran's nuclear activities [are] just a cover up for continuing violation of human rights, a means to limit freedom of speech and to suppress opposition voices

Jomhur (Republic)

We congratulate Supreme Leader [Ayatollah Ali Khamenei] and Mr Ahmadinejad for the success of Iranian scientists... and we all chant loudly: 'Down with America!' and 'Long live Revolutionary Guards!'

Basiji-ye Tondro (Extremist Militia)

Recent military exercises, combined with the 'good nuclear news', leave no doubt about issues Iran has repeatedly denied in recent years

Hengameh Shahidi, activist and journalist

[The quake-hit city of] Bam was supposed to be revived. For three years no laughter has been heard in Bam. NO! We don't want nuclear energy!

Armanshahr (Dreamland)

Negotiating with the US... is sheer stupidity

Morteza Shimiyayi