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Iran Ignores U.N. Uranium Enrichment Deadline; U.S. Pushes for Sanctions

September 1, 2006 at 6:10 PM EST
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MARGARET WARNER: At Friday prayers in Tehran today, defiance. “Death to America,” the crowd chanted, a rousing warm-up for the powerful Iranian government figure and hardest of hard-liners, Ayatollah Ahmed Janati.

AYATOLLAH AHMED JANATI, Iran (through translator): The Islamic republic said, “We are ready to talk.” We said, “Don’t threaten us; we are ready to negotiate, but we are not going to forego our rights.” However they judge us, let’s not worry about it. If we were to be influenced by global public opinion, why did we have a revolution in the first place?

MARGARET WARNER: The cleric said the outcome of the recent Lebanon conflict proved Iranians need not fear the United States.

AYATOLLAH AHMED JANATI (through translator): Muslims must learn that you, too, can stand up against the enemy. The house of Israel is shakier than a spider’s web; the same applies to America. If America stands against us, they will suffer the same defeat as the Israelis.

MARGARET WARNER: The ayatollah’s summary of the Iranian position, a day after the United Nations deadline, was echoed by worshippers in the largely loyal crowd.

MOHSEN GHASSEMI, 25, Student (through translator): The nuclear program that Iran is involved in is totally peaceful, and we are convinced that this will not lead to a war. There is mischief, but this is nothing new. These threats have been in existence for more than 26 years.

FATIMA SHUKRI, 27, Iranian Citizen (through translator): We have already declared and explained the goals of the government, what we want to do, and we have tried to explain it very clearly. And from then on, it’s not important what the world says.

Concern among Iranian businesses

MARGARET WARNER: But those with more to lose tended to see it differently. Thursday night is party night in Tehran. And for many, the entertainment of choice is cruising up and down the avenues, looking for action.

Last night, just hours before the U.N. deadline expired, was no exception. Among these north Tehranis, in professions and businesses that depend on the global economy, there was concern.

You know today's the day of this U.N. deadline. Is it on your mind?

SOROUSH HASHEMI (ph), Airline Pilot: Of course.

MARGARET WARNER: Airline pilot Soroush Hashemi (ph), out for a cruise with his young family, was nervous.

SOROUSH HASHEMI: It looks like things are going in the wrong way. Things are not getting closer; Iran and the United States are not getting closer.

MARGARET WARNER: Are you worried about sanctions?

SOROUSH HASHEMI: Well, if things get worse, of course. Life gets harder.

MARGARET WARNER: "Could there be war?" we asked.

SOROUSH HASHEMI: Experience shows that it's possible. You never know.  Normally, you don't expect wars to happen. You think it's propaganda or something like that, but who knows?

MARGARET WARNER: His car lurched forward. He fell back again for a parting shot.

SOROUSH HASHEMI: What is important is all the Iranians, I believe we have no problem with the United States. So somebody should understand this.

MARGARET WARNER: At a shop where late-night diners were picking up flame-cooked beef and chicken sandwiches, we heard support for the government's pursuit of nuclear energy, but also concern about the consequences of defying the international community.

Hassan Talebi (ph) sells imported computers.

HASSAN TALEBI (ph), Iranian Citizen: If we go on sanctions, it will do something bad on our community, do something bad on our business, I am sure of it.

MARGARET WARNER: But will it hurt your business?

HASSAN TALEBI: Yes, of course, because mostly we are importing some from United States, some from England, but (inaudible) United States.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you think our leaders are doing enough, American and Iranian, to avoid a military confrontation?

It was a question he couldn't or wouldn't answer.

Iranian response to U.N. deadline

JIM LEHRER: There was an Iranian government response today to the threat of U.N. sanctions. And Ray Suarez talked with Margaret about that after she finished that earlier report.

RAY SUAREZ: Margaret, welcome. The deadline came and went for Iranian compliance with the Security Council mandate. Did the government acknowledge that fact in any way?

MARGARET WARNER: Not in so many words, but the note of defiance was just maintained throughout yesterday and today. Yesterday, Ahmadinejad, the president, went and gave yet another speech about Iran's inalienable right to develop this scientific nuclear technology.

And it's just the theme that he's been hitting for over a year. He's really raised public consciousness about that. And, in fact, then you hear it back from people, so it's working.

Publicly, that's their whole pitch, that, "We have this inalienable right. We're a great country. And we're going to keep it up, and we're not going to be bullied."

RAY SUAREZ: Well, what are people telling you in Tehran about what the government's mid-range and short-range plan is in defying the U.N. and by going ahead with uranium enrichment?

MARGARET WARNER: The calculation here or the analysis of the government's calculation is they really think they can divide and conquer. They think they can split the U.S. from the Europeans. And they've noted with some satisfaction that, in fact, not only was there no action at the U.N. today, but I gather John Bolton has said they're not going to do anything until at least late next week after other meetings take place.

So the basic approach is, as I said, to -- they think they can wait out the U.N. Meanwhile, they continue the research. Now, nobody has a sense of how well that is going, but time is very much on the Iranian's side. And that's the way they're playing this.

There are some analysts here who have even said to me off-camera that they think this government wants and needs this confrontation to divert attention from a rather disappointing economic performance over the past year, Ahmadinejad's first year, and to rally the public, kind of restore a sense of national purpose.

And a couple of people have even said to me, who are very critical of the government, they don't even think the government would mind a limited military strike on, say, the nuclear facilities, because whatever they would lose in infrastructure, they would more than gain in enhanced public opinion and clout in the Muslim world and here at home.

Views from the street

RAY SUAREZ: So you describe a government that's willing to court confrontation, possibly even risk military action. What do the people on the streets of the cities of Iran think of what their government's doing?

MARGARET WARNER: As I said, the basic theme of Iran being a nation fully entitled to enjoy the privileges of any other nation has huge resonance here. I mean, the Persian/Iranians are known for being a very proud people, and this just taps into that whole national pride, sense of national pride, and the sense that the world has never recognized what a great nation Iran is.

So even among critics of the government that we've talked to, that is among ordinary people, they support that. What the difference you hear is among those who are more affluent, who are more internationally connected. They are fearful of the consequences.

And some will say to me off-camera, again off-camera, that they think that Ahmadinejad's government has handled this in an unnecessarily risky and reckless way. For example, all the anti-Israel rhetoric has, as one person said, just made the world far more frightened of the prospect of Iran developing a nuclear weapon.

So it's a mixed picture. You're not seeing, say, a major debate in the press or a major debate from parliament about whether Iran should even go down this course. The country seems united behind at least pursuing this technology in some form.

RAY SUAREZ: I guess the next diplomatic shoe to drop is a visit from the United Nations secretary-general?

MARGARET WARNER: That's right, tomorrow Kofi Annan comes. And here's another odd thing. I spoke to a senior diplomat tonight who said that the Iranian press, which I have actually not seen today, is filled with a lot of criticism of the U.N. and of Annan in advance of the trip and sort of calling into question his impartiality and the Security Council's legitimacy. A couple of articles have referred to it as the "U.S. Security Council."

And this person said to me, you know, that is very different, that very new here in Iran. You've never had U.N.-bashing here at all; in fact, the opposite. So who knows what game the regime is playing with that?

But certainly they have done nothing to raise any kind of public hopes or expectations that tomorrow will be a major crisis-settling or problem-solving session.

RAY SUAREZ: Senior correspondent Margaret Warner reporting from the Iranian capital. Margaret, good to talk to you.

MARGARET WARNER: Good to talk to you, Ray.