By BRIAN MURPHY, Associated Press
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Days before Iran's just-completed parliamentary elections, the country's supreme leader gave what amounted to a pep rally on the Islamic Republic's nuclear views.
Atomic technology is a pillar of "national dignity," boasted Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and Iran must stand firm against the "bullying" pressures from the West.
It showed how deeply Iran's leadership cares about its nuclear program in the face of efforts by the West, which is still hoping the finesse of diplomacy and the vise of sanctions can persuade Tehran to roll back on its ambitions and ease calls for military action, possibly led by Israel.
Iran has steadfastly rejected demands to halt its uranium enrichment, which Washington and its allies worry could be the foundation for a future nuclear weapons program. Iran claims it seeks only energy and medical research from its reactors, but it wants full control over the nuclear process from uranium ore to fuel rods.
Another layer was added to Iranian resolve last week when parliamentary elections gave Khamenei loyalists clear control of the chamber. It has no direct sway over key policies such as the nuclear program but can reinforce the messages from the ruling clerics.
With a pliant parliament, Khamenei and the theocracy now have one less internal distraction at a potentially pivotal time: An attack on Iran is clearly on the table, at least as a talking point or a threat.
"We understand the costs of any military action," said U.S. President Barack Obama on Monday after White House talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The meeting clearly showed where they part company: Obama urging for more time to allow a mix of negotiations and economic pressures on Iran; Netanyahu saying that Israel must remain the "master of its own fate," while noting no decision has been made on a unilateral attack. Israel would consider a nuclear-armed Iran a threat to its existence.
Both leaders, though, made it clear Iran must not develop a nuclear bomb, which could touch off a Middle East arms race and embolden Tehran's proxies, such as the anti-Israel group Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Absent from the Washington talks — at least publicly — was recognition of the challenges facing any effort to force Iran to backpedal on its nuclear advances.
From the perspective of Iran's leaders, national pride is on the line.
Iran views its nuclear program as an essential element in its goal of becoming the Islamic world's technology hub, which includes aerospace and defense programs. In late February, Iran offered journalists a rare look inside a satellite control center less than a month after it announced another satellite was launched into orbit.
"The Iranian nation will not withdraw one iota from its nuclear rights," said President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in November.
The nuclear efforts also represent Iran's policies of self-sufficiency that have been built over years of sanctions.
Iran's military has devoted significant resources toward a homegrown defense industry that already claims domestically made drones, missiles capable of striking Israel and weaponry based on Russian, Chinese and North Korean designs. Sophisticated systems-jamming measures could have been deployed last year to bring down a CIA spy drone, which Iran says was recovered intact. The U.S. blamed a technical malfunction.
"Nuclear achievements have various aspects, but creation of national dignity is the most important one," said Supreme Leader Khamenei in late February in a meeting with Iranian nuclear scientists and engineers.
The dispute has deep roots.
Nearly 20 years ago, the hard-line newspaper Jomhuri-e-Eslami ran an editorial accusing the U.S. and others of seeking to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear power technology and seeking to keep the country "in a state of technical backwardness."
Iran's government-friendly media also frequently cite what they call a double standard between Western alarm over Tehran's nuclear capabilities and refusal to call attention to Israel, which is widely believed to have nuclear weapons. The Jewish state refuses to confirm or deny their existence.
Khamenei called the pursuit of technology — from nuclear to commercial — the best buffer against "the domination of the world power," a clear reference to the U.S. and its allies.
"The Iranian nation has not been after a nuclear weapon and it will not be," Khamenei continued. "It will prove to the world that nuclear weapons do not create power."
But there is no doubt that Iranian leaders have taken careful notice of neighboring Pakistan. First came international pressures and outcry over Pakistan's nuclear arsenal — and then reluctant acceptance. After Pakistan's nuclear weapon tests in 1998, Iran's foreign minister was the first to visit Islamabad, saying "Muslims are happy" that an Islamic nation had the capabilities to counter Israel's suspected nuclear-armed military.
Iran, however, has been generally silent on a deal last week by North Korea to freeze nuclear activities and allow the return of U.N. nuclear inspectors in exchange for food aid. Israel dismissed the idea that the breakthrough could mean that similar economic pressures could work on Tehran. Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon called North Korea's nuclear program a tool for "economic blackmail."
In contrast, "Iran has global ambitions, with ideological motivations," he said.
Tehran-based political analyst Hamid Reza Shokouhi believes Iran's Islamic leaders have vested their political credibility so deeply in nuclear self-sufficiency that significant pullbacks are unlikely.
"Any withdrawal from the nuclear (program) will be seen as a political defeat," he said.
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