BUSHEHR, Iran -- In this city of palm trees and warm Persian Gulf winds, Revolutionary Guards walk the streets, armed sentries stand in watchtowers, watchful eyes scrutinize everyone.
For it is here, at a mostly completed nuclear power plant on a bluff overlooking the gulf, that U.S. and Israeli officials believe Iran may try to build its first nuclear bomb.
Huge cranes now sit idle at the site. But Westerners allowed a rare visit to Bushehr last week heard talk around town that about 3,000 Russian workers were due to arrive soon to complete construction of the plant -- a prospect likely to intensify concern in Washington.
The Iran-Russian contract already has irritated U.S.-Russian relations, and senior Republicans warn it could threaten Washington's economic package to the Russian government.
Iran strongly maintains that the power station in Bushehr will provide electricity and double as a huge nuclear-powered water desalination plant -- and that's all. Iran also says -- correctly -- that its contract with Russia is legal under international law.
"To produce a nuclear bomb is not an easy job. If it comes true here, it would be useless. What are we going to do with one nuclear bomb?" asked Said Rajai Khorasani, a Parliament member and Iran's former ambassador to the United Nations, in an interview in Tehran.
"We are following a different policy. We are not going to annihilate the nuclear arsenal of Israel by building a single atomic bomb. The best thing is to find an entirely different approach to the matter, a demilitarization of the region."
U.S. officials insist, however, that Iran is the biggest nuclear threat among developing nations. Last month, U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher said of Iran's nuclear weapon ambitions: "These efforts risk the security of the entire Middle East."
Wherever the truth lies, a fresh U.S.-Iran conflict is under way over Bushehr.
Bushehr-1's twin light-water reactors, now 80 percent complete, will be capable of producing 1,200 megawatts of power, about equal to the largest nuclear plants in the United States.
Western diplomats based in Tehran said they have little doubt that Iran would like to start a nuclear arsenal; its purchases of technology from Russia, China, Pakistan and several other countries indicate its interest, they said.
But they are skeptical that Bushehr will be Iran's Manhattan project.
One reason: bad timing. Iran's dire economic problems have caused the government to focus nearly exclusively on internal politics, especially on solutions to lower inflation, now conservatively estimated at 40 percent this year.
A United Nations administrator in Tehran said there was another reason to doubt U.S. claims: "You don't need to have a big power plant to produce a nuclear bomb. You just need a small lab and a lot of good friends."
But the U.S. and Israeli charges have helped start rumors among ordinary Iranians that either government could bomb the plant -- just as Israel once bombed a similar power plant in Iraq -- if construction restarts.
The plant is a 6-mile drive out of town, past a mile-long air force base with watchtowers every 200 yards, runways and warehouses presumably filled with planes and weapons; past a navy base; and past one-story barracks that now house families of war victims of the Iran-Iraq war.