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Iran Remains Defiant Amid Tensions over Uranium Enrichment

August 28, 2006 at 6:35 PM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: Now, Margaret Warner in Iran, as it confronts the United States and others over its nuclear program. Margaret Warner flew to Iran over the weekend for a 10-day reporting trip, and I talked with her from Tehran earlier today.

And hello, Margaret.

MARGARET WARNER: Hi, Jim.

JIM LEHRER: This promises to be a big news week in Iran. Take us through what’s expected.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, this week — as we know, the deadline comes August 31st. And there’s no doubt from the atmospherics here that Iran is not planning to change its position, which is they aren’t going to give in on this nuclear enrichment.

So the tone, in other words, of just the day-and-a-half I’ve been here has been one of defiance. Ahmadinejad took reporters Saturday, before we arrived, to a new nuclear facility outside of Tehran, a new heavy-water plant for reactors, which the IAEA is very worried about. He said there that this should pose no threat to the world, not even to the Zionist state, as he put it, but he said Iran will defend its right to nuclear technology by force.

And that’s really been the pattern. Last night, he honored 15 noted scientists in a heavily televised event whose work is related to the nuclear field. And every day, with these war games going on, there are new photographs and video purporting to show another successful missile or weapons launch.

So I would say, you know, flexing muscle, defiance, and I don’t think we’re going to see any change from the Tehran regime before the 31st.

A unified Iran vs. the U.S.

Margaret Warner
At the same time, when you talk to people and you look at the press coverage, for instance. It's focused heavily on what Ahmadinejad has said, again, about the right of Iran to have this technology.

JIM LEHRER: Is it your impression that it's just the president, just the government, or does the whole country feel the same way?

MARGARET WARNER: Boy, that is the $64 million question. From the people I've talked to, it does appear that even people who are critical of the government generally endorse Ahmadinejad's view that Iran is a great nation and a greater nation to be -- has every right to develop this technology, which is essential to a modern nation.

And I am told that the response they gave last week did represent a unified government response, that there is not -- there have been splits, but this is where they came down. At the same time, when you talk to people and you look at the press coverage, for instance. It's focused heavily on what Ahmadinejad has said, again, about the right of Iran to have this technology. There's been a lot less focus on the potential consequences.

So in the elite circles, especially business community, and some sort of not government but on the outer fringes, there is concern about whether this economy here could, you know, withstand sanctions, but I would say, in the public, not yet.

JIM LEHRER: Is it phrased, Margaret, in terms of a conflict, a crisis with the United States alone, or is it broader than that? Do they talk about the United Nations and the whole world or is it just the U.S.?

MARGARET WARNER: The coverage I've seen focuses heavily on it being just the U.S. And in fact, yesterday's paper highlighted an interview that John Bolton had given to the L.A. Times, in which he -- Ambassador Bolton -- in which he said, if the U.S. couldn't get everyone on the Security Council to go along with sanctions, they were already pursuing a limited track of getting sanctions with just the Europeans and Japanese.

So they are very much trying to -- and I think they do see that the United States is the driving force in this.

I should add, Jim, that Ahmadinejad now is having a press conference tomorrow. And it's long-awaited, heavily anticipated, as they say. And he wants to talk about his first year in office, the anniversary of which is right around now, but no doubt it's going to focus heavily on the nuclear controversy.

And then Kofi Annan is coming on Saturday after the deadline, ostensibly to try to see if he can find some kind of a middle ground.

Tensions and warmth

Margaret Warner
On the other hand, as I was pushing through the crowd to go out with all my luggage, a woman came up and she could tell I was an American. And she said, oh, you know, "Welcome to Iran. And you will find we are very nice people."

JIM LEHRER: And you will be covering each one of those events for us. And this is your first reporting trip to Iran. Any first impressions?

MARGARET WARNER: On an official level, because I'm an American, there is a tension. I mean, when we checked in, when we came in late Saturday night at the main airport in Tehran -- I'm traveling with a Brit, an American, and an Australian as my crew.

The Brit and the Australian went through. The other American and I were pulled aside to a separate area and fingerprinted by the police in a very -- you know, nothing cursory about it. It was, you know, one of those arrest cards, every finger, double thumb. They were pleasant about it, but it was clearly we were treated differently.

On the other hand, as I was pushing through the crowd to go out with all my luggage, a woman came up and she could tell I was an American. And she said, oh, you know, "Welcome to Iran. And you will find we are very nice people." And, you know, so there was a kind of warmth there.

Last night -- I'll just tell you one other thing -- I was at a shopping mall in town, heavily frequented by women, young women. And I was in the scarf shop, because everyone has to wear these, so I was trying on one. And an older woman came up to me and said in Farsi -- my translator translated something -- and I said, "What?" She says she's very sorry that you have to wear this, that we have to wear.

And then at another scarf shop, the young man behind the desk wanted to engage in speaking English. And he apologized for his English. And I said, "Oh, well, you should come to the states." And he said something in Farsi. I said, "What did he say?" And my interpreter said he said, "Is your suitcase large enough?"

JIM LEHRER: Well, Margaret, obviously, you're going to have an interesting time. We look forward to the proceeds of your reporting over the next several days, and we'll be talking to you again.

MARGARET WARNER: Thanks, Jim.