We are in a makeshift ladies' changing room, putting on protective clothing for a tour of the throbbing heart of Iran's nuclear programme.
It is a welcome respite to replace a hot Islamic shawl with a shower cap. We don surgical gloves, white trousers and tops, face masks and plastic shoe covers for an hour-long trip around the Esfahan conversion plant, whose hissing vacuums and cylinders are working round the clock to produce feed material for Iran's nuclear enrichment plant at Natanz.
The Esfahan facility in central Iran, functioning under complete United Nations scrutiny, is presumed to be a likely target of any US military strike aimed at halting Iran's nuclear programme before its scientists can manufacture enough fuel for a bomb at Natanz.
With a new round of UN sanctions looming to punish Iran for its refusal to halt the Esfahan activities and uranium enrichment at Natanz, the Iranian government has launched a charm offensive designed to ensure public opinion in Europe and the US that its nuclear intentions are purely peaceful.
Western governments continue to insist that Iran must suspend enrichment as a precondition for negotiations, because of the deep mistrust stemming from the country's 18-year concealment of the most sensitive aspects of its nuclear programme.
The Independent and five other journalists from Britain, France, Germany and the US - whose governments will decide whether there can be a peaceful solution to the crisis with Iran - were invited to Iran by the government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, with a promise of unprecedented access to the country's most senior officials and it's most sensitive nuclear plants. However at the last minute the Iranians set limits on the scope of the visit, cancelling trips to the critical facility at Natanz and to the controversial Arak plant under construction. The last-minute decision, put down to "technical problems", illustrated once again the opacity of the power structure in Iran, where overall decisions are made by the spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and where the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps holds sway in the shadows.
The conversion plant, in the shadow of jagged sandstone mountains into which tunnels have been excavated for security and the safe storage of nuclear material, is located just 15km south-east of Esfahan, one of the most beautiful cities in the Islamic world.
The facility is approached by a half-hour drive along a desert road flanked with military hardware. Here, we can see for ourselves how the Islamic republic came to raise its nuclear programme to such a level of national pride and independence that the atomic symbol is now printed on a banknote.
We are escorted into a hall where a banner proclaims: "Nuclear energy is our obvious right."
A short propaganda film, accompanied by stirring music, shows the triumph of Iranian scientists as they celebrated the production of the first vial of uranium hexafluoride from yellowcake in 2004. Since that breakthrough - according to Hamid Mohajerani, the plant's 30-year old general manager - some 200 tons of uranium hexafluoride gas have been produced. The feed material, stored in white cylinders, is dispatched, in full view of the cameras of the International Atomic Energy Agency, for enrichment to Natanz where the IAEA has confirmed Iran's claim to have mastered the technology to enrich it to the 3.5 per cent level required for civil purposes.
If the uranium was enriched to 93 per cent or more, Iran would have weapons grade fuel. However Western experts say the country is still between five and 10 years away from producing a bomb.
The West's need for objective guarantees of Iran's peaceful intentions has been further reinforced with the election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
A fierce critic of the West, he has raised tensions with Israel through his repeated references to the disappearance of the Jewish state. …