Iran says its plans to enter the nuclear club are “responsible”. But with
opposition, it is playing its part in triggering a critical mess.
The depiction of Iran as a dark and sinister evil
force bent on regional domination has the hallmarks of fantasy about it. But
the Iranian Foreign Minister ManouchehrMottaki’s attempts 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 Comment
is Free. “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
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 Zoroastrian
worth]... 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
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
If Iran is after “energy security”,
why invest in a technology that will leave it at the mercy of outside forces? Iran
will likely 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, indeed, Iran is intent on pursuing a
nuclear weapons programme, there is nothing new there. GawdatBaghat, 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.
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, MahmoudAhmadinejad 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 suits
George W Bush and his neocon allies, who need to
divert attention away from the unfolding disasters in Iraq and Afghanistan, just fine.
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.”
has proudly promoted a historic idea: a ‘Middle East
free of weapons of mass destruction’,” the Iranian foreign minister boasts.
And, alongside Egypt, Iran
has, since the 1970s, been at the forefront of moves to remove the threat of
WMD 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.