Iran says its plans to enter the nuclear club are ‘responsible', but maintaining an arms race is likely to prove futile.
The depiction of Iran as a dark and sinister evil force bent on regional domination has the hallmarks of fantasy about it. But attempts by the Iranian foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, to depict his government as benign and “responsible” must also be taken with a pinch of salt and a couple of generous tablespoons of common sense.
“Today, Iran has no economic backbone without energy security and diversity,” Mottaki claimed earlier this week in the Guardian. “A pressing problem for Iran today concerns the need for – and development of – energy security and diversity.”
Despite the fears elicited by Iran's nuclear ambitions, there is nothing new in its foreign minister's stated position. With the assistance of the US's Atoms for Peace programme, the Tehran Nuclear Research Centre was set up in 1967. Seven years later, in 1974, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi opined that: “Petroleum is a noble material, much too valuable to burn [a possible reference to its ritualistic value for some Zoroastrians] … We envision producing, as soon as possible, 23,000 megawatts of electricity using nuclear plants.”
Most countries, including oil-exporting ones, are beginning to worry about the imminent post-petroleum era. Nevertheless, I have trouble following the logic of this official Iranian line.
If Iran is after “energy diversity”, why invest in a dangerous and expensive technology that other countries are on their way to abandoning in droves? With the exception of France, most European countries are working towards reducing their reliance on nuclear energy. Some, like Belgium, have government commitments to phase out nuclear power by decommissioning ageing plants.
In addition, Iran lacks the technological and scientific infrastructure to develop its own independent nuclear programme. That, coupled with US objections, make what is a costly technology even more exuberant.
If Iran is after “energy security”, why invest in a technology that will leave it at the mercy of outside forces? Iran would probably be almost completely dependent on foreign suppliers for spare parts. In addition, the IAEA fears that by 2020 uranium supplies may not be enough to meet global demand.
As I said in a previous article, if the Iranian government is worried about the consequences of post-oil Iran, wouldn't it be a lot more sensible and less controversial to invest in solar power, given the abundant supply of sun the country enjoys? Concentrated solar power (the cheap and more low-tech cousin of photovoltaic technology) not only has the potential to produce all the electricity Iran could ever need, but also has the added advantage that it can desalinate seawater and reclaim desert land to boot.
Of course, the suspicion that Iran wishes to develop nuclear weapons cannot be dismissed out of hand. Although Iran is not known to possess weapons of mass destruction of any sort, the US's National Intelligence Estimate of November 2007 uncovered evidence that Tehran had been running a covert nuclear weapons programme which it halted in 2003.
Again, if Iran is indeed intent on pursuing a nuclear weapons programme, there is nothing new there. Gawdat Bahgat, director of the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, stated that: “In the mid-1970s, the Shah was quoted as saying that Iran would have nuclear weapons ‘without a doubt and sooner than one would think'.”
So, why have nuclear weapons held such an enduring fascination for Iran?
Despite the caricatures of Iran's leaders as power-crazed religious megalomaniacs, there are very rational, if misguided, motivations behind its non-civilian nuclear aspirations.
Currently, Iran is surrounded by nuclear-armed foes and potential foes: Israel, India and Pakistan, not to mention the United States – which is considering the use “tactical nuclear weapons” – in neighbouring Iraq and Afghanistan. During the first Gulf War, the one between Iran and Iraq, Baghdad was working on its own nuclear weapons programme and slaughtered thousands of Iranians with chemical weapons.
In addition, there is the deep-seated distrust of European powers, particularly Britain, the United States and Russia, all of whom have launched military action or orchestrated coups in the country at one time or another.
Then there's the prestige factor. Iran is very proud of its ancient pre-eminence and any apparent restoration of some ancient glory, no matter how illusory, is bound to go down well. And this is particularly important at a time when the government is doing little to improve the lot of the average Iranian and the ranks of the young and restive unemployed are growing.
In fact, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is doing what populist leaders do best: engineering an unnecessary crisis to appease the hardliners and silence critics as unpatriotic at a time of national need. And across the Atlantic, this also suits George Bush and his neocon allies, who need to divert attention away from the unfolding disasters in Iraq and Afghanistan.
This gives a hollow ring to Motakki's assertion that “in Iran we are trying to defend our independence, to meet the needs of our young, to advance society, and to steer the ship of the Middle East in these turbulent waters to calm shores.”
The Iranian foreign minister boasts: “Iran has proudly promoted a historic idea: a ‘Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction'.” And, alongside Egypt, Iran has, since the 1970s, been at the forefront of moves to remove the threat of WMDs from the most heavily militarised region in the world.
However, for non-nuclear Middle Eastern states to pursue a policy of ‘mutually assured destruction' is as MAD as the acronym suggests. There is no way they can maintain an arms race with Israel and the economic burden of one would probably cause them to implode like the Soviet Union did.
The best approach Iran could follow is to extend a conditional hand of peace to Israel, and not ratchet up the rhetoric as Ahmadinejad has been doing, while forging a united regional front to pressurise Israel into phasing out its nuclear weapons programme.
More importantly, the current nuclear powers need to come to terms with the hypocrisy of their position. The spectre of nuclear proliferation was released, first, by the United States and then the other major nuclear powers. As long as they refuse to commit to disarmament, plenty of aspirants will make their bid to join the nuclear club.