As oil prices soar, so will demands for atomic energy. Iran knows this and Americans should, too. Why it's time to rethink the global approach to nuclear proliferation.
By Christopher Dickey
Updated: 3:27 p.m. ET Sept. 23, 2005
Sept. 23, 2005 - Acts of God are on everyone's mind just now. They're forcing mass evacuations, inundating cities, driving up the cost of gasoline, weakening the economy, undermining the war effort in Iraq. The Almighty is so often on the tongue of politicians these days, both American and foreign, that invocations of the divine have started to sound like little more than boilerplate. Of course, over the years, few politicians have called on God more often or more automatically than the leaders in the Islamic Republic of Iran.
So when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad spoke to the United Nations last Saturday, it shouldn't have surprised anybody that his language was fit for a Revolutionary Guard revival meeting. Peace and tranquility depend on "justice and spirituality," he kept saying. "Faith will prove to be the solution to many of today's problems." You might hear the same pieties from our own zealous politicos. But here's the problem: on the question of nuclear proliferation—a very big question indeed—Iran's fundamentalists seem to have a clearer sense of fundamental realities that ours do.
That's precisely why Iran has succeeded so well in outmaneuvering the diplomatic offensive by the United States and the European Union at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) meeting in Vienna this week. The Bush administration has focused on the threat of Iran obtaining nuclear weapons. Washington's crusade is the Global War on Terror. Its idea of hell is Iran with long-range nuclear missiles. But Washington simply has no proof, no smoking gun, not even a blank bullet. Does it have suspicions? Absolutely, and with reason : Iran hid crucial parts of its nuclear enrichment program for about 20 years; American and Israeli officials also say Iran is pursuing a missile program that wouldn't make a lot of sense without nuclear warheads. There are anonymous reports and deep concerns that the Iranians and North Koreans are in league with each other to build bombs and terrorize us all. But since the delusional invasion of Iraq, such American, British and Israeli suspicions don't carry the weight they once did.
The Iranians, for their part, say God doesn't want them to have The Bomb, and they're OK with that. "In accordance with our religious principles," Ahmadinejad told the U.N., "pursuit of nuclear weapons is prohibited." So they claim they're focusing all their attention on the need for nuclear energy as a relatively cheap, efficient and reliable long-term source of electricity. That's why they're conducting their research. That's why they're building their reactors. That's why they're enriching uranium. That's why they are signatories to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which is supposed to open the way for them to develop peaceful nuclear energy, and that's why they are very careful to observe the letter (if not the spirit), of the treaty's language.
Ah, but why does Iran, with all its oil, need nuclear power at all? The answer is straightforward: oil and gas are just too valuable to continue wasting on Iran's internal consumption. Oil is also a finite resource; nuclear energy is not. Acts of God can make the lights go out, but they won't make them go on. So over the long term Iran expects it will have to rely on atomic energy for its continued development, and it's not alone. Eighty per cent of France's electricity comes from nuclear power plants, for instance, and many countries are reaching the conclusion that the atom will be a key to their survival. In a generation or two, whoever controls the ability to make nuclear fuel could well control the world.
The Iranians play to that fear among developing countries with their talk about the "inalienable right"—in fact, the existential need—for nuclear power. And when Ahmadinejad coined the phrase "nuclear apartheid," he nailed it: "We are concerned that once certain powerful states [read: the United States and Europe] completely control nuclear energy resources and technology, they will deny access to and thus deepen the divide between powerful countries and the rest of the international community," said the Iranian president. "When that happens, we will be divided into light and dark countries." Literally.
Iran argues it has to control the entire cycle of nuclear fuel production—mining uranium, enriching it, using it in reactors, eventually perhaps reprocessing it—if the country is going to preserve its long-term independence. The United States and Europe argue that if Iran controls the entire fuel cycle it can enrich uranium for atomic bombs as well as atomic reactors, and that's an unacceptable threat to world peace. The impasse, with inconclusive advances and setbacks, has lasted since 2003, when the extent of Iran's secret enrichment programs was uncovered. All week, the United States and Europe have been pushing the IAEA's board of governors to send the issue to the U.N. Security Council. But Russia has been reluctant, which suggests not much would come out of the Security Council anyway, and most of the developing countries on the IAEA board have found Iran's arguments more persuasive than Washington's.
There is a way out of this dangerous stalemate, if not this week, then at least in the foreseeable future. IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei argues for the creation of fuel banks under international control, where countries wanting to generate nuclear power could go for the low-enriched fuel they need. There would be no danger of their enriching it further for nuclear-weapons production, on the one hand, but there would also be little or no possibility that the United States or other powers could use a cutoff of the fuel as an economic weapon. "Countries will have the fuels they need," ElBaradei told NEWSWEEK last year. "They have the assurance of the supply, but they do not necessarily need to do the job themselves."
This was part of a package of reforms ElBaradei hoped to push through the NPT review conference in New York last May. But the United States showed littler interest in his plans, or in the conference for that matter. Now, it should take another look. ElBaradei's proposals are the best presented so far to test the motives of a country like Iran, appease the many nations that fear Western arrogance and open the way for all of us to have safer, more sensible sources of energy in the future. It shouldn't take an act of God to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons, or even an act of war. Good diplomacy, and attention to the real concerns of other countries, could be and should be enough.
For further discussion of these topics—and a sample of reader responses—go to Christopher Dickey's Shadowland Journal.
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