Juan Cole

Alternative Energy: A Way Out of Iran Impasse?

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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.

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