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Ordinary Iranians not preoccupied with new nuclear role

TEHRAN, Iran—Apart from a few schoolyard rallies and celebratory newspaper headlines Wednesday, Iran's first day in the nuclear club was subdued, with workaday Iranians still more preoccupied with pollution and unemployment than possible retaliation from U.S.-led Western powers.

"Nuclear energy is our absolute right!" chanted about 300 Iranian boys during a rally Wednesday at the Saeedy Guidance School in Tehran. Some students carried placards that read, "God help you, Iranian scientists."

State television repeatedly replayed President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's speech from Tuesday night that announced that Iran had successfully enriched uranium for the first time in defiance of the United Nations Security Council. The setting for the speech was designed to stir patriotic feelings, with a boys' choir singing the national anthem and shouts of "God is great!"

But Iranians were clearly of two minds about the impact of the development.

Minutes after the president's speech Tuesday night, one jubilant police officer yelled, "America must respect us now!" then quickly resumed questioning the blood-spattered victim of a traffic accident.

Others were less certain. "I'm still not sure whether this brings us more or less security," said Mehdi Taheri, leaving an upscale restaurant with his wife. "The United States has bases in Afghanistan, Iraq, Turkey and the Persian Gulf countries. We're surrounded."

For now, Iran's enrichment capabilities are considered small scale, just 164 centrifuges that spin uranium hexafluoride gas into enriched uranium. The process can produce low-enriched uranium for power plants or highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons.

But Iran plans to install 3,000 centrifuges at its Natanz site by late this year.

In an interview before the president's speech, Davoud H. Bavand, a political scientist in Tehran, said he wasn't optimistic about the future of international negotiations over Iran's nuclear program. The U.N. Security Council has given Iran until the end of the month to suspend its enrichment activities, and so far there are no signs that Ahmadinejad will back away from his insistence that Iran has the right to peaceful nuclear energy.

Bavand said he believes a showdown is certain. "It's too late to change the minds of the international community and impart that our activities are for peaceful purposes," Bavand said.

At a retail center in the capital, shoppers who caught the end of Ahmadinejad's speech on radio late Tuesday expressed both pride and concern.

"I'm in favor of Ahmadinejad, but even I didn't think he was brave enough to pick a fight with the whole world," said Negar Rahimieh, waiting for a taxi near an Iranian burger stand decorated with McDonald's-style golden arches.

"I'm so happy about this success. We haven't had this kind of technological progress in a long time," said Ali Jalali, who trained as an anesthesiologist, but, like many Iranians, couldn't find work in his field. He now mans the desk of a car-rental agency. "Of course, we cannot predict how the West will react, but sanctions are nothing new for us," Jalali said.

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): IRAN-SCENE

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