Iran’s religious leaders' efforts to build a nuclear industry (and perhaps nuclear weapons) are taking it down a path of confrontation with the rest of the world which is guaranteed to increase the country’s isolation and contribute to the worsening of the economic pressure on Iran’s impoverished population. I’m not just talking about the short-term potential or additional sanctions or even military action against Iran, rather taking a longer-term view.
Let’s put knee-jerk nationalism aside for a moment. Before we parrot the mullahs’ line in claiming that nuclear energy is our legal and God-given right, let’s try to think systematically about Iran’s nuclear ambitions in an objective framework, and examine the potential motivations for pursuing such a program.
Iran’s nuclear ambitions go back to the Shah, who started Iran’s nuclear program in the 1970s. (by the way, how many Iranians would support the nuclear program if the Shah was still around?) There was then, as there are today, three possible motivations for pursuing such a program: as part of an overall energy strategy, to acquire technology in a critical field, or to develop nuclear weapons.
Energy: Iran holds one-tenth of the world’s oil reserves and has the second largest gas reserves in the world. In this context, the development of nuclear potential as part of a long-term energy program should be a very low priority, as the country’s conventional energy resources will provide its energy needs for decades, if not longer. A program of energy conservation and development of alternative clean energy would clearly be more cost-effective. Furthermore, there are clear security concerns. Not only is Iran at the center of one of the most active earthquake zones in the world, but I do not think that we would want to entrust the safety of operations of a nuclear plant to this corrupt and inept government. The combination of these two factors does conjure the specter of another Chernobyl-an issue which has been raised by Iran’s neighbors.
Technology: If the object of the program is to achieve mastery of a key technology, why doesn’t the government harness Iran’s capital and immense human talent to become a global leader in environmentally-friendly alternative energy technology? We only need to look at the outstanding scientific and technological achievements of our fellow Iranians in the United States to believe that this is possible. Our neighbor Qatar, also a major natural gas producer, is on the verge of launching a multi-billion Gas-to Liquid (GTL) plant, which converts natural gas into clean diesel fuel. Why not Iran? At this stage, what has the Islamic regime achieved in terms of nuclear technology, except maybe having obtained a few grams of low-level enriched uranium by using a second-hand, and essentially unreliable stolen Pakistani centrifuge technology? What’s the next step?
Nuclear weapons: This brings us to the third and most compelling argument, that of developing nuclear weapons, or at least a weaponization capability. The standard arguments offered by the government (and repeated by many Iranians) are two-fold. First, if Israel has nuclear weapons, so should Iran. Second, that it allows Iran to fend off threats from the United States. On the first point, despite the propaganda war by Ahmadinejad and his cohorts, Iran has no direct quarrel with the Israel or any compelling long-term strategic reasons to confront the Jewish state.
Even if the Islamic regime developed a nuclear weapon, it would be difficult to imagine circumstances under which it would be used (by the way, has any one in Iran thought about delivery systems?) If Israel did use nuclear weapons against one of its Arab neighbors, would Iran use its own against Israel at the risk of having several of its cities vaporized in response? The answer has to be a clear no! Regarding the second motivation, having a few nuclear weapons is clearly not a deterrent against a superpower which has several thousand of highly accurate warheads. We can also be sure that, if Iran were to develop nuclear weapons, our larger neighbors would follow suit, and within a decade, the whole region would be nuclearized. Ultimately, developing nuclear weapons would be a highly dangerous regional zero-sum game.
In the globalized and integrated world we are living in today, economic prowess always trumps military might. The world’s political and business leaders line up to pay homage to China and India, not as nuclear powers, but as the two giants that will almost certainly dominate the world economy in the coming decades. In the past decade, major developing countries such as Brazil, Argentina and South Africa, gave up their nuclear ambitions in an internationally verifiable way, preferring to focus their energies on their economic development and the prosperity of their people. Look where they are today and compare it with the dismal economic track record of Iran’s Islamic regime.
In the past twenty seven years, the mullahs have consistently put their survival ahead of the welfare of the Iranian people. The nuclear issue, which gives them a new lease on life, is for their benefit, not for the Iranian people — and is a vivid illustration of the famous quote about patriotism being the last refuge of scoundrels. We have their answer, what should ours be?