Changing Iran’s Nuclear Calculation with Green Energy: Buonomo

Thomas J. Buonomo writes in a guest column for Informed Comment

Changing Iran’s Cost-Benefit Analysis on Its Nuclear Program

The announcement last week by Chinese officials that China is interested in building joint wind, solar, and geothermal energy installations in Iran should be taken advantage of by US policy-makers. The proposed Chinese projects could much expand Iran’s nascent solar energy capability and obviate the need for nuclear reactors. Iran already has a hybrid solar-gas power station near Yazd, which began work in 2009 and has a capacity of 467 megawatts (about half that of a small nuclear reactor). It is the eighth largest solar electricity generating plant in the world. Iran also has four large wind energy plants, but together they only generate 92 megawatts of energy. In order for the crisis between Israel and Iran to pass without war, Iran needs a lot more plants like that at Yazd, and China is the external power most likely to be interested in building them. A solar Iran could give up nuclear enrichment and reactors, thus drawing back from the brink of any drive to acquire nuclear weapons.

One of Iran’s ostensible reasons for wanting a nuclear program is to transition to an alternative source of electricity for domestic consumption. This would purportedly free up oil and natural gas reserves for export at a higher price on the global market rather than remaining allocated to Iran’s highly subsidized domestic market.

Iran’s defensive motive for pursuing a nuclear breakout capability would be to deter foreign aggression, which it has historically had cause to be concerned with because of its coveted energy resources.

The question remains whether Iranian leaders would exploit this capability to pursue their own expansionist foreign policy agenda.

Given the political obstacles U.S. diplomats have faced in building support for sanctions that are constricting enough to dissuade Iran from its current course, U.S. or Israeli leaders might eventually feel that they are left with no choice but to attempt a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities or perhaps even pursue regime change by covert or overt means.

Such a course of action would have the potential to lead to significant U.S. naval casualties in the Persian Gulf as well as Iranian retaliation against U.S. military and civilian personnel in Afghanistan and Iraq. And while the introduction of U.S. conventional ground forces into Iran might be seen as an improbable scenario, it is impossible to predict how Iranian officials would respond to U.S. or Israeli airstrikes, particularly if they believed that such strikes were ultimately intended to help catalyze regime change. An Iranian government that believed its survival was at stake would almost certainly lash out viciously and without restraint, increasing the potential for a much bloodier and costlier conflict than U.S. military engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan.

An Incentives-Based Diplomatic Approach

Considering the current doubtful prospect of a decisive sanctions regime and the unpredictable consequences of a military strike or covert action against the Iranian government (recall the wildly optimistic expectations for post-Saddam Iraq), the Obama administration should consider offering Iranian officials an opportunity for rapprochement in the form of renewable energy technology and financial incentives to help it achieve its ostensible goals.

Iran has abundant geothermal, solar, hydroelectric and wind energy resources that could help it satisfy its domestic electricity demand without presenting an inherent threat or monitoring nightmare to the international community. This would require substantial investment but Iranian leaders might be prepared to consider such an alternative if the U.S. and other U.N. Security Council states were prepared to offer it attractive financing options.

Such an initiative would demonstrate to Iran that the United States is not an implacable enemy but rather is willing to take meaningful steps to support its peaceful aspirations and integration into the international community in return for reciprocal security assurances. If Iran no longer perceives a threat from the U.S., whatever defensive motivation it might have for pursuing a nuclear weapons capability would no longer apply.

Detractors of a rapprochement strategy along these lines will likely argue that offering technology and financial incentives to Iran would constitute appeasement of an implacably hostile regime, that Iran’s political leaders would disdain the offer, or that they would cynically negotiate in order to gain additional time to build their nuclear program.

The first two arguments can only be rebutted if the U.S. makes the offer, presenting Iran with generous terms demonstrating goodwill and respect for a proud and sovereign nation. The risk that Iran would use the offer to stall can be addressed by attaching a reasonable timeline to the negotiations, extending the timeline if necessary only on the condition that Iran limits or suspends its enrichment activities and cooperates fully with IAEA verification efforts in the immediate term.

Though the instinct of more hawkish advocates may be to dismiss any possibility of rapprochement, if an incentives‐based approach fails the United States will have lost nothing. On the contrary, it will have strengthened its diplomatic position against the Iranian government by further substantiating the argument that the primary purpose of its nuclear program is to enable it to project coercive power throughout the region.

Getting China to Push Iran to the Negotiating Table

While China does not currently view Iran’s expanding nuclear program as a threat substantial enough to warrant truly constricting sanctions, U.S. diplomats should impress upon them that interests diverge and loyalties shift. While a weak and isolated Iran might remain friendly toward China in the short term out of necessity, a nuclear-armed Iran might adopt a more independent, hegemonic foreign policy in the region, presenting potential energy security complications for China, whose dependence on the Middle East will only increase as its economy continues to expand.

If the United States and European Union could convince China that its interests are actually aligned on Iran, the threat of a more thoroughly constricting sanctions regime might induce Iran to acquiesce on its nuclear program in exchange for generous technological and financial support for renewable energy.

The key is to avoid backing Iran into a corner with no way out or offering it inadequate incentives that would be viewed as a national humiliation if they were accepted.

A renewable energy offer can be summarily dismissed by hard-nosed political realists as a long shot- no substitute for the tempting prestige of a nuclear program –but with incentives enticing enough on the one hand and economic sanctions formidable enough on the other, Iran just might give it some serious consideration. If it does not, we will be left with the same difficult choices.

It’s time to expand the self-imposed conceptual box of our current foreign policy while we still have time. We have nothing to lose and everything to gain by trying.

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Thomas J. Buonomo is a former Military Intelligence Officer, U.S. Army. He holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Political Science and Middle East Studies from the U.S. Air Force Academy and is pursuing a career in conflict analysis and prevention.

28 Responses

  1. Here’s hoping!
    I’d like to add two points, though.

    1. Why is Iran’s reason for wanting nuclear power “ostensible” or “purported”? If you’re a taxi driver, you’re not going to burn your car in order to heat up your house! Similarly, Iran sells oil to earn income; when the West is prepared to purchase Iran’s generated nuclear energy, then I am sure that Iran will be happy to burn its oil as an energy source for itself. And electricity blackouts plague the country, especially outside Tehran.

    2. The nuclear angle is largely a straw man. This is about dominance. The Left has not learnt from the WMD debacle (“No war for oil”? You’re kidding yourself.) It keeps debating, and offering solutions to, a decoy!
    Such a war will start because the Left is afraid to face the cause of the last one.

  2. isn’t it the case that uranium needs to be enriched to about 3% for energy applications and something like 19% for medical, or do i have that backwards? if i don’t, then doesn’t this not quite address the main worry, which is that Iran is developing the capacity to enrich uranium to levels closer to weapons-grade?

  3. If the United States and the EU can persuade China that their interests coincide on Iran, the Chinese are bigger suckers than I can imagine, and the Chinese do not appear to be suckers at all. China is no threat to Iran, while the United States and Israel are extraordinarily aggressive and reckless and not to be trusted by anyone, based on their records over the last 70 years. Iran and any other state that wishes to maintain their independence always need to careful about the United States, but China – not so much. To expect Iran to want to start trouble with China under any circumstances while the United States is around is quite far-fetched. And the Chinese know that the US has plans for them too; they are prudent people.

  4. “The first two arguments can only be rebutted if the U.S. makes the offer, presenting Iran with generous terms demonstrating goodwill and respect for a proud and sovereign nation.”

    That won’t happen here in the land of all war…all the time.Senators Graham, McCain and Joe Liberman have introduce legislation that basically says, the president can make no concessions with Iran. In other words, “Get the hell out of our way with your peace talks. We want WAR!!”

  5. “The question remains whether Iranian leaders would exploit this capability to pursue their own expansionist foreign policy agenda.”

    This is a pretty wild assertion even going back to the Medes and the early history of the Persian Empire. The Iranian support for Hamas and Hezbollah comes from a different place and cannot and must not be labeled as “expansionist.” The Iranian leadership in more in line with the Abbasid era domestic and foreign policies. In this manner, there is a deeply rooted connection to the Shia ideology of justice and fair governance. Solidarity with the downtrodden in the region comes from these roots.

    There was a possibility of rapprochement based on green energy carrot, pre David Frum’s infamous Bush “Axis-of-Evil” speech and Cheney led neocon rejection of moderate Khatami government’s overtures. That proverbial train left the station awhile back.

    Now we have to deal with our own image in the mirror. The only course left is to stand for and push for a nuclear weapons ban in the entire Middle East. Ask our friends and foes to come to the table. For this to happen we need to think outside of a different “box.” The “military-industrial complex” of Eisenhower is our box and in a very similar manner Israel’s. Unless we and our friends can find a way to crawl out, the Iranians will not be deterred anymore by the promise of a few Megawatts of green energy than our own recent governments of Democrats and Republican governments alike.

  6. A very good and hopeful article, but I would like to suggest that Iran’s and the US’s very similarities make them difficult bedfellows.

    Writers often depict the Iranian government as an “opaque and complex labyrinth of conflicting interests”. I would say given the various competing interests in the US such as the military/industrial complex, Israeli, xenophobes, social democrats, and oil/gas interests, the same can be said about the US.

    Correspondingly, the attitude expressed by the author, “offering … incentives to Iran would constitute appeasement of an implacably hostile regime” can also be applied in referring to the United States’ historical relationship with Iran.

    The US’s longstanding hostility toward former “enemy” states such as Cuba, Viet Nam, and Russia, that have refused to become clients indicate the US’s inability to make any significant changes in it’s foreign policy and in the end will hurt it as the “empire” becomes financially untenable.

    • Are “we” so hostile to Vietnam, then? link to usvtc.org

      And a trade balance of -$13 billion in 2011? “Made in Vietnam” stuff for sale at Walmart, which of course is a post-national corporate entity just like Northrop “We never forget who we’re working for” Grumman, and General Atomic and the rest?

      And our apparently fu##ed-up, can’t-keep-the-Enemies-straight MIC, that sells weapons to the “Commie gooks” and engages in joint maneuvers with the same navy that they claimed to have attacked a US ship in the Gulf of Tonkin? link to asianews.it (Oh yeah, that’s all about “pivoting to the threatening of “China.” Since our rulers are running out of scarecrows and boogeymen…)

      And yet all these seemingly intelligent humans want to keep on keeping on with their silly Game of RISK! as if that’s the best that humanity can do — stage-managed “conflict” with nice Manichaean Players, while in the wings and in the bowels below the stage is the real reality, where all the money flows…

      • Walmart in Viet Nam? Egads! Opening their economy to the globalists does count as a client state.

  7. This very insightful, interesting post is going to be ripped to shreds, because it postulates that it is a bad thing for the Iranian regime to acquire nuclear weapons capability, and ascribes motives to Israel that go beyond an Iago-like thirst for doing evil for its own sake.

    • Joe, I think you are going to have to address Amir below and say something that matters to ordinary Iranians and their nationalistic pride. It’s like the insult the Japanese people felt in the ’20s from the Washington Naval Treaty and US immigration quotas, which our racist leaders never considered would have consequences. Tyrants make their living off of this anger.

  8. Any solution that does not includes Iran’s right for enrichment and Nuclear energy will not work. we don’t care if it is economic or not but Iranian will never accept to be treated like second-hand citizen and prevented from their rights.

    • Much as I like the proposal, I think this is mainly about pride,both national, and of the political actors. I suspect Amir’s attitude will be quite common, and hard to overcome. Particularly so, as the US political opposition will seize on any hesitation, as proof that the Iranians will only respond to force, and the administration is naive.
      And on our own side, the political course of least resistance requires, an enemy to confront will preclude honest negotiations. In any case, during a US presidential election its hard to imagine pursuing such a bold strategy. Like Cy, I think the opportunity for a grand deal came, and went a decade ago.

  9. Why argue for a rational foreign policy strategy to achieve officially stated policy objectives in the first place?

    De-escalating military tensions with Iran would seem to be a rational exercise in its own right, and certainly make everyone safer. Assisting in developing their renewable energy sector would also be a rational exercise in its own right that may go some way in addressing global ecological crises and secure a common future.

    But all this would require accepting a regional power, which would by its very existence impede (illegal) military strikes (e.g. in Lebanon) by “the West” or its local proxies; as well as to accept that such a local power could pursue their economic policies more or less independently – even if this might entail, say aligning with the Russia-China axis on the grand chessboard of the great resource game in central Asia, if they deem doing so is in their national interest.

    Assuming our policy makers could bring themselves to do that, it seems unlikely that we would be any longer interested in the Iranian nuclear program any more than they are in the Indian or the French one.

    Clearly “the West” is either pursuing official policies – preventing an Iranian (capability for a) nuclear weapons program – in a non-rational way; or we are pursuing adversarial policies guided by ulterior motives in a quite rational (if short-sighted) way.

    In either case, Buonomo’s critique is misdirected, since appealing to the rationality of the “decision makers” seems rather self-defeating, as they use their rational faculties for different purposes to the extent that they value rationality at all: Why on earth would they want to further strengthen the energy sector – including high technology transfer for solar power – to a demonized enemy / economic competitor?

    Other than missing its target audience, pointing out the contradiction between official goals and actual policies is an important critical contribution and the author also excels at demonstrating how easy it would be to think of opportunities for trying something far more interesting and beneficial from a global perspective than current policies towards the Middle East.

  10. There is no ‘inherent threat’ from Iran’s nuclear enrichment program, nor is Iran ‘on the brink of a drive to acquire nuclear weapons’.

    The religious authorities have always been implacably opposed to nuclear weapons. Last month the Supreme Leader, Ayotallah Khamenei said:

    “The Iranian nation has never pursued and will never pursue nuclear weapons.”

    “There is no doubt that the decision makers in the countries opposing us know well that Iran is not after nuclear weapons because the Islamic Republic, logically, religiously and theoretically, considers the possession of nuclear weapons a grave sin and believes the proliferation of such weapons is senseless, destructive and dangerous.”

    This is a theocratic state. They take these things very seriously.

    They already have big programs in solar, wind and hydro-electric power. But it is fanciful to think that these technologies can replace the burning of fossil fuels on anything but an extremely long time scale. In the meantime, there is no way Iran will give up its nuclear energy program, and no reason why they should.

    • I do think it highly likely they don’t want to pursue a weapon. However I suspect they are entertaining the idea of obtaining strategic amiguity (if their potential enemies think they might have a bomb, then they have achieved deterrence).

      I do think the proposal has more merit. Iran is seriously lacking in capital and technological expertise with which to agressively pursue modernization of its energy sector. A grand deal would be greatly to its benefit, however it has to appear domestically to not be a cavein to foreign pressure. And on the other side of the deal, it has to appear to also not be a cavein or giveaway. Those objectives are hard to acheive.

  11. Either our real agenda is regime change, or it’s about arms control. Since for most of the US-Israeli actors it’s clearly about regime change, they will block a compromise based on alternative energy with every lie they can come up with. Democrat Zionists who normally support alt-energy like Friedman will sound very different when it’s alt-energy that might save an Islamic regime.

    But this proposal is valuable precisely because it will function as a wedge issue between imperialists and deluded liberals in the US. Since it means Iran will have more oil to export and thus make it cheaper, we can hoist the conservatives on their own greed-driven “drill baby drill” arguments.

    • If it is really about regime change (and it seems to me that the evidence certainly points that way), it won’t matter a damn thing what the government of Iran does with nuclear technology. It didn’t matter with Iraq, did it? They had no nuclear weapons program, the U.S. intelligence services knew they had no nuclear weapons program. The brain trust in charge of the U.S. at the time repeated endless lies stating that they DID have a nuclear weapons program and they were about to (somehow) kill millions of Americans. Millions of Americans believed them and presto: war! Think of it this way: imagine there was some magical way in which a spell could be cast over Iran, the result of said spell being, while nothing else would change, it would now be absolutely impossible for them to acquire nuclear weapons, EVER. Do you really see those clamoring for war on Iran right now changing their minds? I don’t. I think they would just start making new justifications for it.

  12. I am against nuclear armament and also nuclear power plants. I consider them unsafe and extremely dangerous. But I cannot agree with prohibiting a country from acquiring nuclear power or armaments if other countries refuse to dismantle theirs. All countries should be subjected to the same rules. If the US does not want Iran to have nuclear armaments, then it should give the example and dismantle its nuclear warheads. If Canada does not want Iran to have nuclear power plants, then it should dismantle all its nuclear power plants. All countries should be subjected to the same rules. Anything else is pure hypocrisy and double standards.

  13. But the overarching bottom line is always that Iran has no hope of self determination with regard to its nuclear future. And the overarching rationale to compel this status is the notion that Iran is intrinsically evil (a charter member of the “Axis”) – the evidence being that the US and Israel have repeated this so often and for so long that it must be true.

    Demonization is the prelude to hurt. If “crippling” sanction don’t hurt enough, we have the willingness and an infinity of weapons to move to the next level. Any diplomatic activity that ameliorates Iran demonization is almost as bad as the Iran bomb itself.

  14. Good post/idea that should go under the negotiation file for “expanding the pie.” And not to detract from it, but there are a number of ideas that are already in that file and still more that could be added, drawing from the established history of interstate negotiation.

    Looking at the various responses, you get get a distillation of what stands between the current situation and two (three or however many) teams of negotiators getting together and cutting a deal that would be in everybodies best interests.

    What is missing, as others have said in their own way, is a serious commitment to resolve the situation, and I see no one who is blameless. In fact, looked at critically, neither Israel, Iran, or the US, wants to see this issue settled (however we define the “issue”, it wouldn’t be just that of potential nuclear weapons). Iran has been the existential threat used by the Likud to keep in power and finesse any progress by the Palestinians since at least the nineties; the US uses it as a national security bogeyman in a similar, but less directly applied way, and has been doing so since the 1979, and Khomani has said in as many words that US military posturing has been key to giving the Iranian people a sense of shared danger and cohesion (hard to imagine, with the enormity of our military footprint around them [sic]).

    So, until the proper motivations come into alignment, nothing good is every gong to happen. The situation is liable to bubble along for many years. The only way things may change, and that very well might, is as an unintentional byproduct of political posturing for the domestic consumption of the three becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy through some set of events nobody thought of, or which somehow got out of control (ie, by some fluke Sanctorum is elected President). Or whatever: the most probable course of future events here is itself depressingly improbable.

  15. All this logic is based on the assumption that Iran can and will provide sufficient proof that it does not cross the US/Israeli red lined on nuclear development.

    But the Iraqi example shows that it is completely impossible. If Iran will agree for certain more intrusive inspections, the only result will be more fears, more unanswered questions, more demands, etc.

  16. My Hero would’ve approved this positive approach:

    “To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war”

    Churchill, Winston White House luncheon, June 26, 1954

  17. My understanding is that Iran doesn’t want a nuclear reactor powerful enough for energy use, but a lower level reactor to produce nuclear isotopes for medical purposes.

    Alternative energy sources, such as solar/wind/hydro/wave, might bring great benefits to the Iranian people, but none of them will produce medical nuclear isotopes.

    Iran has signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, by which they are permitted to have a peaceful nuclear capacity such as the planned medical isotope reactor. The US violates that treaty (and US law) by forbidding Iran from having any nuclear capacity whatsoever.

    This bothers no one? War is the inevitable result?

  18. Two schools of thought are coursing through the veins of Washinton decision-makers, competing for dominance. One is the desire to persuade Iran to forgo the bomb. The other is a combination of the neo-liberal desire to gain economic control over Iran to exploit it plus the neo-con desire to expand U.S. empire by taking out the greatest current symbol of opposition to the U.S.-centric global political system.

    To the degree that Washington wants to prevent Iranian nukes, the author’s proposal of supporting the development of green power for Iran is a brilliant positive-sum solution.

    To the degree that Washington wants empire, the author’s proposal will come as nothing more than unwanted interference.

    Read their lips.

    • Energy is only part of the equation for Iran. For one thing, they want to make isotopes for medical use which means enriching to 19%. But Iran’s main concern is its independence and geopolitical strength. That is much more than an energy issue and won’t be solved by alternative energy. In fact, I think its a bit pie-in-sky to suggest alternative energy as a solution to an issue that is so wrapped up in politics and power. The problem with American policy is its short-sightedness. We should solve the problems from 1979. THe US does not recognize the Iranian government as legitimate and has no diplomatic relations with it. If this isn’t an antiquated policy, I wouldn’t know what is. It is absurd. There is no possible way Iranian and American diplomats, much less Iranian and American physicists can interact normally except perhaps an occasional conference or meeting outside both countries. Recognition of Iran, security garurantees to it and trade deals that respect its importance to the region would be good places to start.

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