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Iran In a War of Words with the Bush Administration

February 18, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: The war of words between the U.S. and Iran over Iran’s nuclear program. President Bush got things under way with these words in his state of the union message.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Today Iran remains the world’s primary state sponsor of terror, pursuing nuclear weapons while depriving its people of the freedom they seek and deserve. We are working with European allies to make clear to the Iranian regime that it must give up its uranium-enrichment program and any plutonium reprocessing and end its support for terror. And to the Iranian people I say tonight, as you stand for your own liberty, America stands with you.

JIM LEHRER: Vice President Cheney also called Iran a “top threat” to world peace and Middle East stability. And two days ago, Secretary of State Rice told a Senate committee: “The Iranians know what they need to do. They need to stop enriching uranium; they need to stop trying to, under the cover of a civilian nuclear power program, to get a nuclear weapon.” Elizabeth Farnsworth has been in Iran recently on a reporting assignment for us. Here is her report on how officials and ordinary Iranians are responding to these American words.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The heaviest snowfall in 15 years blanketed Tehran as we arrived. A soft quiet fell over the city, and people had trouble getting around. In the hills to the North, neighborhood friends lobbed snowballs at each other and pelted people in cars as they drove slowly through heavy drifts on their way home. The harsh language aimed at Iran by the Bush administration seemed very far away.

But on Thursday, the 10th, the Iranian counterattack began. People bundled up against the weather and walked by the thousands to Freedom Square to celebrate the 26th anniversary of the Islamic revolution’s victory over the shah.

“Death to America,” they shouted, “Death to President Bush.”

In the square, President Mohammed Khatami launched some rhetorical grenades. He’s a moderate, a reformist, in the Iranian political context, and is usually mild-mannered when he speaks, but not on this day.

PRESIDENT MOHAMMED KHATAMI (translated): The Iranian nation doesn’t support war and conflict. Despite our differences, the Iranian nation will unite against any form of aggression and threat. If, God forbid, aggressors walk into this country, Iran will turn into a burning hell for them.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The president insisted that the large nuclear power plant under construction with Russian help at Bushehr on the Persian Gulf and other nuclear facilities are not producing fuel for weapons. The Bush administration insists that some of the work at these plants is military in nature.

Last fall, in response to U.S. and European pressures, Iran agreed to suspend uranium- enrichment, such as at the Natanz plant, and multinational negotiations are under way now about the future of Iran’s program.

PRESIDENT MOHAMMED KHATAMI (translated): Iran’s nuclear activities are peaceful, and we will not stop these peaceful activities because of the illegitimate demands of others. We willingly and temporarily suspended our nuclear activities as a gesture towards maintaining trust and building good relations, and we expect others to show their goodwill so we can fulfill the task of building good relations.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The next day Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani led Friday prayer, a weekly event at the University of Tehran, and in a sermon fired away at the Bush administration. Rafsanjani is a former president who still wields much power as chairman of a high council of the clerical government. Though not yet formally a presidential candidate, many here think he will run and has a good chance to win elections this June.

AYATOLLAH HASHEMI RAFSANJANI (translated): We should address the issues being raised by the Americans today. What the leaders of the White House are saying can best be described as psychological warfare. Don’t doubt it. Psychological warfare may be an introduction to violent actions. I would like to tell the White House categorically that their way and their threats are futile. These things frighten neither our people nor us. The Persian Gulf region is not a suitable place to play with fire.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The Persian Gulf region holds more than half of the world’s known oil reserves, and about 90 percent of the area’s oil exports must pass through the Strait of Hormuz, between Iran and Oman. The strait is only 34 miles wide, making it a potential choke point for the world’s oil supplies.

For months, ever since Iran’s nuclear policies came under heavy U.S. fire, the Iranian military has been showing off its stuff. Last fall an improved missile, the Shahab-3, capable of reaching Israel and U.S. troops in the region, was the star of a military parade. And last weekend, Iranian television featured minister of defense Ali Shamkhani, a rear admiral, introducing a new line of stealth torpedoes. He said it was part of the effort to step up defense capabilities against possible threats.

The defense minister had warned some months ago that if Iran’s nuclear facilities were attacked, America’s troops in Afghanistan and Iraq would suffer. On Saturday, he said: “There is no geographical position in the region which would be secure for the enemy to attack Iran.”

For months, newspapers here have been reporting sightings of low- flying aircraft in Iranian airspace. Some people thought they were UFO’s. On Sunday, the Washington Post, citing U.S. officials, reported that: “The Bush administration has been flying surveillance drones over Iran for nearly a year to seek evidence of nuclear weapons programs and detect weaknesses in air defenses.”

The news was widely covered in Iran all week. Iran’s intelligence minister responded to the report on live television, saying Iran is aware of the surveillance and ready to shoot down the drones.

At a press conference, I asked the foreign ministry spokesman whether Iran was also aware of spying by secret American reconnaissance missions on the ground, which has also been reported in the U.S. media.

HAMID REZA ASEFI, Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesman (translated): The very essence of the remarks and the reports proves that the Americans have violated the Algiers agreement, according to which America had pledged not to interfere in the domestic affairs of Iran. This again shows the violation of international law by America.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Gauging public opinion here can be tough. Polls show wide support for the government on the nuclear issue.

IRANIAN CITIZEN (translated): We are not pursuing for the military purposes like the United States, British, French and China. They have the bombs, so why in the world — nobody asked the United States Government, why they should have it? Who died and made them the king? Who are Bush is to make the decisions for the whole world?

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Getting views critical of the government on camera is another thing. Occasionally, people would approach us off camera to say they welcome Bush administration pressures.

But many people won’t speak to us because they know that local and foreign reporters are monitored by the government. We asked Dr. Mohammed Reza Khatami, brother of the president and leader of his political party, about the nuclear issue. Khatami was deputy speaker of parliament and is now a candidate for vice president in elections scheduled for June.

DR. MOHAMMAD REZA KHATAMI, Vice Presidential Candidate: You know, the only thing in the country that the majority, a very strange majority, of the people support the government was having the nuclear technology.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The polls are reliable? That a large majority –

DR. MOHAMMAD REZA KHATAMI: That’s right, that’s right. So it is some psychological thing here in Iran.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You were in government. Is Iran pursuing a path of nuclear weapons?

DR. MOHAMMAD REZA KHATAMI: I think the major plan of the government of Iran is not to have nuclear weapons, but there are some radicals, maybe some of them in the government and military forces and so on, that they clearly and firmly have announced that we should have a nuclear weapon. But one thing is very important for us: The world asks us to guarantee the security of world by not having a nuclear weapon in Iran. But what happens to our security in the region?

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: To your security?

DR. MOHAMMAD REZA KHATAMI: Yes. When the United States government says very clearly that we want to change the Iranian regime, so why should we cooperate with the United States? It’s not my belief. I believe we should do our best with the IAEA and stop all uranium enrichment in Iran, but when the conservatives and the radicals say those words — that what will happen to our security? — everybody in Iran will give the right to them to say to the people, to the world, “we are ready to solve this problem in a mutual way.”

We should have something to earn. We are in need for new modern technology, for more collaboration with the West and other countries.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: This is the context in Tehran as nuclear negotiations between Iran and the Europeans continue, with the United States waiting skeptically and exerting pressure in the wings. The snow stopped before we left Tehran, and the streets, like relations with Washington, were grid-locked once again.

JIM LEHRER: In a second report next week, Elizabeth will report on how U.S. pressures are affecting political reformists and human rights advocates in Iran.