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    Deeper Than Oil: A Day Out at an Iranian Nuclear Reactor

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    I’m no expert of course, but security at the Tehran nuclear reactor where I spent last Valentine’s Day seemed a touch on the lax side. Aside from a metal detector and a poster of the late Ayatollah Khomenei, there didn’t really seem to be much else safeguarding the facility ahead of what promised to be a milestone event for Iran’s disputed atomic program.

    I’m no expert of course, but security at the Tehran nuclear reactor where I spent last Valentine’s Day seemed a touch on the lax side. Aside from a metal detector and a poster of the late Ayatollah Khomenei, there didn’t really seem to be much else safeguarding the facility ahead of what promised to be a milestone event for Iran’s disputed atomic program.

    Less than 24 hours earlier, I’d been at the much more heavily guarded headquarters of Iran’s Security Council, where the Islamic Republic’s deputy chief nuclear negotiator, Ali Bagheri, told RIA Novosti that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would install the country’s first domestically produced nuclear fuel rods in a reactor in north Tehran the following day.

    Fired up with the joy of a world exclusive, we left the interview and spent the next hour or so phoning the news through to Moscow, while simultaneously driving through roads lined with hundreds of tooled-up Iranian riot police attempting to smother the country’s first major anti-government demonstration for a year.

    The experience was as surreal as it was exhilarating. Nuclear intrigue. Sirens flashing. The sights and sounds of a Tehran evening. The scent of violence in the air. The knowledge that I was the only British journalist (albeit one working for a Russian news agency) in the city.

    It was a joy to be alive.

    The next day, my adrenalin levels having dropped back to almost their normal level, we headed out to the reactor.

    The Iranians say they have no need of “un-Islamic” nuclear weapons and that their atomic program is aimed at the production of civilian energy. Not many people believe them, least of all the Israelis, and Mossad agents have taken to assassinating Iranian nuclear scientists whenever they can. Allegedly.

    The Iranians are pretty jumpy about this threat and we were warned before being allowed into the facility not to “film even half the face of a reactor employee.” And then, we were inside.

    Of course, they didn’t let us right into the core of the reactor to poke about at stuff, but ushered us into a conference room where we watched a live transmission of Ahmadinejad and a group of scientists doing the business with the nuclear rods, intoning Islamic prayers after every stage of the process.

    I was a bit worried about radiation leaks, but a senior Iranian official had brought his daughter along for the event, so I guessed that was proof that everything was under control. That’s what I kept telling myself, anyway.

    After Ahmadinejad had finished with the rods, he made his way to the conference room to address the audience of senior Iranian officials, other dignitaries and the families of nuclear scientists “martyrs.” But not before, as the oddly informal translator informed me, a group of male singers treated us to “a couple of religious songs.”

    It was actually pretty funky stuff, but there was no dancing in the aisles. Not even, and I checked just to be certain, any foot tapping. Ahmadinejad was moved by the performance though, dabbing at his eyes with a tissue. And then he made his way to the stage.

    This was the second time I’d been in the presence of the man the West loves to hate in the space of four days, having attended celebrations for the anniversary of Iran’s Islamic Revolution the weekend before, and I half-thought I saw a glimpse of recognition in Ahmadinejad’s eye. Or maybe it was just a tear.

    “I pray to the Almighty to hasten the coming of the twelfth imam,” Ahmadinejad began, a reference to the Shi’a Muslim messiah, the mahdi, whose reappearance from centuries of occultation will, believers say, usher in the global dominance of Islam. And also see a lot of strife and stuff beforehand.

    Ahmadinejad then got down to his speech, praising Iran’s nuclear program while simultaneously reiterating that Iran was not looking to build nuclear weapons.

    “When the great powers think of nuclear energy, they think of atomic weapons. But nuclear energy has lots of uses,” he said.

    He was a bit more laid back than he had been at Revolution Day celebrations, where he’d had to scream to keep the attention of the tens of thousands of people bussed in for the event and handed “Down with USA” and “Down with Israel” placards. But he still came up with some good lines, accusing Western leaders of being “the barbarians of history” and “betraying” humanity by “monopolizing nuclear science that should serve all the world.”

    And then he was done. We left the reactor, first picking up a packed lunch that the Iranians had thoughtfully laid on. Near the exit was a poster that read: “Nuclear power for everyone, nuclear weapons for no one!” If they are building a nuclear weapon, I thought, they really are good at lying, the detail and consistency in the deception staggering.

    One thing that is often overlooked in any discussion of Tehran’s nuclear program is that the West and Israel have been predicting an “imminent” Iranian nuclear weapon for decades now. No sooner had the U.S.-backed shah been booted out of town than Tel Aviv was warning of the Iranian nuclear threat. In 1992, the United States joined, when a House Republican Research Committee suggested that there was a “98 percent certainty” that Iran had virtually all the components to create nuclear weapons.

    So where is the Iranian bomb? Are they really bad at nuclear science? Or, perhaps, they really are telling the truth and don’t want one? Or, just maybe, they didn’t want one, but spooked by all the talk of the necessity of an attack to “prevent Iran getting its hands on nuclear weapons,” they decided to try to knock a few up to defend themselves. Just in case. And who could blame them for that?

    The views expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

    From lurid tales of oligarch excess to scare stories about Moscow’s stranglehold on Europe’s energy supplies, the land that gave us Roman Abramovich and Vladimir Putin is very rarely out of the news. But there is much more to modern Russia than billionaire tycoons and political conspiracy. Marc Bennetts’ weekly column, Deeper Than Oil, goes beyond the headlines to explore the hidden sides of the world’s largest, and often strangest, country.

    Marc Bennetts is a journalist who has written about Russian spies, Chechen football and Soviet psychics for a number of UK newspapers, including The Guardian and The Times. He is also the author of Football Dynamo: Modern Russia and the People’s Game (Virgin Books).

     

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