How To Solve The Dilemma of the Iranian Nuclear Energy Program
November 12, 2011
In the past week, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) published a scathing report on Iran’s nuclear program, alleging that Iran has repeatedly lied, and that they are creating nuclear weapons as fast as possible. Israel has hinted that a military attack on Iranian nuclear sites is possible by mid-December 2011, though Israel alone lacks the capability to significantly harm Iran’s nuclear program. The US is arming the UAE, Iran’s most vocal critic in the Gulf. Hamas and Hezbollah have indicated that any conflict would quickly become a regional war.
Western powers recently denied Palestine’s bid for membership to the UN – clearly, capitulation is not a strategy for either side, no matter the topic of discussion.
Should Iran fear the West?
The Iran / Iraq War remains a fresh wound for Iran, which spanned 1980-1988. The Iraqis attacked Iran with American-made weapons in an opportunistic offensive less than a year after the Islamic Revolution of Iran, in which a Western-backed monarchy was toppled by a populist religious uprising. Rather than weakening the new Iranian regime, the war galvanized Iranian patriotism, and solidified the new Shia Republic’s sovereignty over Iran. Iraq used chemical weapons against Iranian troops, though Iranian leadership refused to respond in kind. The chemical agents included nerve gas and mustard gas, used in World War 1 and subsequently banned by numerous military treaties.
By contrast, the East – including China and Russia – have been far more sympathetic to Iran. China is right in their opinion that additional sanctions will do nothing to deter Iran. Russia has condemned possible military action against Iran, and has recommended no additional sanctions for Iran in light of the recent IAEA report. These declarations stand in contrast to the USA, UK, and France, which all advocate additional sanctions. China has extensive economic dealings with Iran, which China defends. These relationships enable Iran to continue to survive and grow economically as the Shia Republic continues to be increasingly isolated from the West.
Should Israel Fear Iran?
Even Egypt has criticized Iran’s close ties with Hamas and Hezbollah, and these terrorist groups have promised retaliation against any Israeli attack on Iran.
Iran’s refusal to formally recognize Israel is not a cause for immediate alarm – Pakistan has had a nuclear arsenal since 1998, and also refuses to formally recognize Israel.
Israel possesses nuclear weapons, as well as the means to deploy them. Theoretically, Iran could destroy all of Israel in one nuclear attack. But such an attack would certainly mean destruction of all of Iran as well. The phenomenon of mutually assured destruction brings the likelihood of immediate Iranian use of nuclear weapons to zero.
Israel has definite reason to fear a nuclear-weapons capable Iran, not because Iran would immediately nuke Tel-Aviv, but because of the diplomatic and political power that comes with possessing a nuclear arsenal. This is Israel’s most legitimate reason to fear an Iranian nuclear arsenal.
For example, North Korea continues to test nuclear weapons, and without using nukes in hot combat, North Korea enjoys the significantly increased diplomatic and political power that comes with membership in the nuclear club. North Korea is likely the world’s most culturally isolated country, and Iran is likely the world’s most diplomatically isolated.
Mutually assured destruction ensures that Iran will not give nukes to Hezbollah or Hamas. Israel and the world would surely view such action as direct nuclear violence by Iran against Israel, and would respond in kind.
Scenario Analysis and Likely Outcomes
Though Iran has provided Hamas and Hezbollah with weapons, so has the West against Iran. The West has set a precedent of enabling horrifying proxy wars (Iraq / Iran War), and of actually invading over accusations of the same overly ambitious weapons programs (US / Iraq Invasion, 2003). History is not a perfect indicator of the future, and such an invasion of Iran is impossible.
Iran would embolden the nuclear programs of other nations in building a nuclear arsenal with impunity. The question becomes, at the extreme, if every country has nukes, would mutually assured destruction be enough? Definitely not. Something must be done to end nuclear proliferation. The problem is that military action is less effective than the already impotent economic sanctions leveled against Iran.
A likely scenario appears to be that Iran will attain nuclear weapons, and that no one can stop them.
Even a joint US/Israeli attack would only set back the Iranian nuclear program 3 years. Iranian possession of nuclear weapons would not immediately mean the end of Israel. But an Iranian nuclear arsenal would be a huge influence over any future hot wars in the Mid East, of which there have been over a dozen in Israel’s short history.
Nuclear weapons would assure the sovereignty of Iran’s government, and would eliminate the possibility that the US and UK could topple the regime as they did in Iraq.
A less likely scenario is where Israel pre-emptively attacks Iran before Iran gets nukes. Regime change and extended occupation (as we saw in Iraq over most of the past decade, where the reasoning for attack is identical to that proposed in Iran) is next to impossible in Iran. Today’s Iran is stronger than Iraq was in 2003, and Iran’s population is far larger and more politically unified. Iran has repelled invasion from the West before, and Western voters are unlikely to support yet another indefinite foreign occupation.
A Western attack on Iran would likely come in the form of an aerial bombardment intending to set back the Iranian nuke program by as much as 3 years. It’s highly unlikely that Russia or China would violently retaliate on behalf of Iran, though trade sanctions would cut deep on an economically struggling US.
Potential Sanctions Against the West
China has over a trillion US Dollars in reserve, and if China were to trade these Dollars for gold, silver, or other durable stores of wealth, demand for (and value of) the US Dollar would crumble, potentially triggering the avalanche that so many economists fear. Value of the Dollar could drop by as much as 20% in months. China would have to cut exports to the US, but the time may be ripe for such action – US debt is viewed as increasingly toxic, US credit was recently downgraded, and such a move would enable China to increase national consumption (something it has longed to do). China is due to overtake the US in GDP by 2016, and may view these events as a way to combine its new economic strength with augmented political power.
Open hostilities would erupt between Iran and Israel if Iran was attacked. It’s difficult to say which other countries would be involved, and such involvement is likely to be determined by judgment calls made by government officials. Israel and Iran would be suddenly locked in a nuclear weapons race, and simultaneously, a hot war. Such a confrontation would last indefinitely.
It would not be without precedent for a nation engaged in a hot war to complete its first nuclear weapon and use it in anger. Even an aerial bombardment of only Iranian nuclear facilities is a self fulfilling prophecy in that it guarantees war. Such action bars any peaceful solution, guarantees open conflict, a nuclear weapon construction race, and a race to construct better and more numerous methods of deployment (missiles, submarines, suitcases, and so on).
A Broader Question of Nuclear Proliferation
Freedom of information is a powerful force, and scientists from all over Asia seem perfectly willing to inform Iranian scientists on how to make nukes. The question is, which country will be the last to obtain nukes? Iran? Turkey? Saudi Arabia? Chad? Proliferation will occur unchecked even by diplomatic sanctions, because the benefits of merely having nukes outweigh the costs of even the most stringent sanctions.
We saw this happen in North Korea, when the harshest diplomatic sanctions did nothing to deter proliferation. The effect of diplomatic sanctions is a diminishing one – the first round is the worst, but after a country learns to survive on its own (or more specifically, with its remaining trading partners) those sanctions lose weight and cease to have meaning.
Having nuclear weapons is more of a diplomatic tool than anything, and it remains likely that Iran will obtain nuclear weapons.
It is possible that the West could engineer a strike on Iran’s known nuclear facilities, in a single, surprising, quick attack with mostly missiles and drones. Such an attack would set back Iran’s nuclear capabilities, but would leave the West exposed to harsh sanctions from China, would eliminate potential for peaceful resolution, would harden and drive Iran’s nuclear program underground, and would guarantee both a nuclear arms race and a hot war between Israel and Iran. Military action is strongly discouraged. It is a mistake. No one should attack Iran, especially not Israel.
Diplomatic sanctions don’t work, and military action won’t work either (sorry Romney and Gingrich, but you’re very, very wrong on this). The answer is actually counterintuitive – give.
Iran has justified its nuclear program as a way to “provide energy for a growing population.” This is, at its heart, a financial reason. Rather than continue to eat into its own primary export (oil), Iran would rather power itself alternatively, thus exporting more of its oil and taking in more revenue.
Therefore, logic requires that financial incentives should be enough. Why not help Iran build wind farms?
The world needs to step up and help Iran transition to a sustainably powered economy. Iran’s leaders could, of course, defy their own logic by continuing with a nuclear program even after the world has provided Iranians with sufficient wind and solar energy. In this case, force would be more justifiably used, and would likely come with significantly more international support, thus vastly increasing the likelihood of the success of that force.
The costs associated with the construction of such a grid are vastly overshadowed by the costs of war.
Those most adamant against a nuke-capable Iran should be the ones most willing to help Iran build wind farms and solar plants. The entire state of Texas is now capable of powering itself and its neighbors with wind energy. Iran could easily do the same. There is no need for even one more nuclear reactor on this Earth.
Though they were some of the best-prepared nuclear reactors in the world, Japan’s nuclear program was overwhelmed by natural forces earlier this year. Nature proved to be capable of surprising us with its intensity, and could easily surprise us again with a large catastrophe in earthquake-prone Iran. Accidents do occur even in the absence of natural disaster, and the nuclear option, in the long term, guarantees meltdown. Further, storage of nuclear by-products is dangerous and complicated.
Now is an outstanding opportunity for the West to take a leading role in dismantling its own nuclear energy program – replacing it with wind and solar – and requiring that Iran follow suit. We need to make nuclear energy a thing of the 20th century, and our world must commit to solar and wind generated energy. Now is the time, and our other option involves open, potentially nuclear, war.
To provide this alternative energy to Iran, the West will need to re-engage Iran in discussions. The West has not spoken to Iran since late 2009, and that dialogue needs to resume.
The world needs a sustainably powered electricity grid. As we sit today in the waning moments of 2011, the need for wind and solar power has never been greater. Some of today’s most realistic scenarios involve violent, sovereign use of nuclear weapons, and the realistic alternatives are wind and solar energy generation.
An ounce of prevention is a pound of cure. A relatively small outpouring of world resources to implement a wind and solar grid in Iran would be dwarfed by the global outpouring of expense, loss of life, pollution, and so on associated with even a non-nuclear war.
May we all have the sense to use this moment as an opportunity for peace and intelligence, rather than advance agendas for war and suffering.