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DUBAI (Reuters) - Iran has sentenced a prominent academic to 18 months in prison for "spreading propaganda against the Islamic Republic" after he questioned the utility of its disputed nuclear program.
Sadegh Zibakalam, a political science professor at the University of Tehran, confirmed to Reuters on Thursday Iranian news reports of his conviction, after he questioned the wisdom of vast state spending on a nuclear power programme that the West suspects is a front for developing weapons technology.
"I was the first one to publicly ask critics of the Geneva deal, 'What has the nuclear program done for this country? How will an agreement be a problem for the country?'" said Zibakalam who is free pending an appeal.
He was referring to the interim deal signed with world powers in November by which Tehran agreed to limit some of its nuclear work in return for the easing of some sanctions imposed by countries concerned Iran is seeking atomic weapons.
Iran has one nuclear power station and has plans to build many more, saying that would free up more of its vast oil reserves for export.
It denies any secret weapons programme and accuses the West of trying to stifle its technological progress and of using the nuclear issue as an excuse to impose sanctions and make military threats against the Islamic Republic.
Hardliners in Iran have criticised President Hassan Rouhani's decision to enter the nuclear talks - which are under way this week - saying Iran should not be compromising with its adversaries in the West.
In newspaper articles and speeches, Professor Zibakalam said the money spent on the nuclear programme would be better spent on education and health.
He was hopeful his sentence would be quashed on appeal.
"I don't think this decision will be acceptable under the (Rouhani) administration because they are doing all they can to solve the nuclear issue," he said.
"Moreover, Rouhani asked universities not to leave the government alone and to support their work to achieve a nuclear deal."
Rouhani, who has been pushing to improve relations with Washington after decades of antagonism, said in a televised speech on Wednesday that "if the world respects Iran's nuclear rights, I think we can take the final step down the path to fully eliminate sanctions with ease."
Editing by Noah Browning and Robin Pomeroy