TEHRAN, Iran, AP -Iran insists it will not be drawn into the Middle East fighting between Israel and Tehran’s Hezbollah clients but may be unable to avoid fallout on the already difficult diplomatic struggle over its nuclear program — hardening positions on all sides, experts on the talks say.
Outside Iran, the fighting could sharpen the resolve of Western powers and others that fear Iran wants to build a nuclear weapon and is using what it calls a civilian program as a cover for that ambition. Inside the country, hard-line forces might become increasingly unwilling to make concessions.
One of the immediate worries is that Iran could set off a regional arms race and bring new risks to an area brimming with tensions. The fighting in Lebanon and the Hezbollah rocket attacks highlight concerns that nuclear material, whether from Iran or elsewhere, could in the future find its way into the hands of militant groups like Hezbollah who want to destroy Israel.
“This will certainly be on the Western mind,” said Ahmad Bakhshaiesh, a political affairs researcher at Azadi University in Tehran, who has written extensively on the Iran’s nuclear positions. “No one is saying this is possible or could even happen, but just the thought will likely increase the pressure on Iran.”
Earlier this month, a private nuclear watchdog group, the Nuclear Threat Initiative, criticized world leaders for not following through on pledges to secure nuclear sources. The Washington-based group said tons of nuclear material remains “dangerously vulnerable to either outsider or insider theft.”
The report did not mention Iran by name but called on leaders in the Group of Eight — the world’s richest nations — to take stronger steps to close all gaps in nuclear security.
But some hard-line Iranian groups may use Israel’s pounding of Hezbollah to strengthen their argument that Iran must never give up the option of developing nuclear weapons, said Nasser Hadian, a political analyst at Tehran University who closely follows the nuclear talks.
“In their minds, the region is so volatile that the only safety is to have the ability to produce a nuclear deterrent,” Hadian said. “These voices have been getting louder in recent days.”
Iran is considering a package of incentives, including advanced technology for peaceful nuclear reactors, in exchange for a long-term moratorium on uranium enrichment, which is used for nuclear power plants but can be retooled to create weapons-grade material. Iran said it would reply on Aug. 22 to the offer by the five permanent U.N. Security Council members and Germany.
But Iranian officials have given no clear signals they are willing to give up enrichment. The six nations have warned they are running out of patience and could seek a Security Council resolution that would demand Iran suspend uranium work.
Iran argues it is entitled to uranium enrichment under the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty and says it only seeks electricity-producing reactors. Washington and allies believe Iran’s Islamic regime secretly wants to push ahead with a nuclear arms program.
“Any tension in the region does not have a positive effect on Iran’s negotiating position on the nuclear issues. It will have a negative effect,” said former Iranian Vice President Mohammad Ali Abtahi, who now runs a center for inter-religious dialogue.
Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution inspired the founders of Hezbollah in the early 1980s, and Iran has been the group’s main pipeline for funds and supplies. Iran denies it had any role in planning the cross-border raid two weeks ago that captured two Israeli soldiers and unleashed the worst Arab-Israeli fighting in 24 years.
Iran also dismisses Israeli claims it has provided Hezbollah with longer-range Fajr-class missiles that have reached deep into Israel.
One of Iran’s top military officers, Maj. Gen. Seyyed Hassan Firuzabadi, said Saturday that Iran would never join the fighting in Lebanon.
“The crisis in Lebanon has not affected our nuclear dispute,” said Kazen Jalali, spokesman of the Iranian parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Commission. “Iran has never pursued nuclear weapons. So how could Iran provide Hezbollah with them?”
The dual crises — the Mideast fighting and the nuclear showdown — has brought some sweeping mood swings in Iran.
On nuclear technology, there’s rare consensus. Even reformers who strongly oppose the theocratic state rally behind nuclear technology as an issue of national pride and self-determination.
But there are clear divisions over Iran’s steadfast support for Hezbollah.
Many Iranians — including those sympathetic to the suffering of Lebanese civilians — question why Iran continues to open the vaults for Hezbollah when the domestic economy is sputtering and unemployment nearing 40 percent, according to some independent estimates.
“It makes me angry to hear the government praising Hezbollah and paying for Hezbollah when we have so many troubles right here,” said Mohammad Faroudeh, a 40-year-old street sweeper. “I feel bad for the Lebanese, of course, but we can’t forget Iranians.”