November 7, 2008

Iran's Case

"A nuclear weaponized Iran destabilizes the region, prompts a regional arms race, and wastes the scarce resources in the region. And taking account of U.S. nuclear arsenal and its policy of ensuring a strategic edge for Israel, an Iranian bomb will accord Iran no security dividends."

The opening statement in a US demand that Iran renounce nuclear weapons? No, actually, it is the official policy of the Iranian government. The extract comes from one Hassan Rohani, identified by Time as "representative of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameini, on the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) and Iran's former top nuclear negotiator." Rohani added that "there are also some Islamic and developmental reasons why Iran as an Islamic and developing state must not develop and use weapons of mass destruction."

Iran's case for nuclear power generation is barely audible in the West, but it is not the thread-bare case so often alleged.

The first is that they want it for the same reasons that others do. A modern industrialized economy requires diverse sources of power generation. Theirs is too dependent on oil. As the accompanying chart of gasoline prices shows, Iran practically gives away the stuff to its people. Domestic consumption has consequently grown rapidly, from 1.2 mbd in 1997 to 1.6 mbd in 2007, raising the prospect that satisfying Iran's own needs would lead in the not too distant future to having nothing left to export. This is a common feature of oil-rich developing nations and has been a big factor behind the rise in developing world consumption.

If you examine this from the standpoint of opportunity costs, Iran's case for nuclear generation is actually just as good as importers of energy like South Korea or India. The Shah wanted it, of course; it was the mullahs who got rid of the program, in part due to repugnance over its association with weapons of mass destruction. Over time, they changed their minds.

A second reason, in some ways as important as the first, stems simply from national or civilizational self-regard. The Iranians find it absurd that they should be treated as infants or pariahs. They look at that BP chart--the one that accords them and their region 0.0% in the way of access to this technology, though those who deny it to them enjoy it themselves--and they say, this cannot be. It isn't fair, not to humanity generally nor to us specifically. The sentiment of national independence, furthered by indignation over hypocrisy, joined with a sense of civilizational uniqueness--all this makes the Iranian people easy converts to the view that they are being denied something that in justice belongs to them, and on behalf of which they should hold out to the bitter end.

These sentiments would be powerful even if Iran's case for nuclear power generation was a bad one. As it happens, that case on the technical merits makes a lot of sense for them.

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