Why are President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton seemingly so bereft of ideas on how to handle Iran's nuclear ambitions?
I'm not going to waste time in proposing, as so many editorialists do, a change in "tone" or for more "respect." Of course we need to incorporate both of those things, but most of all, we need new ideas.
The Obama administration knows this very well, but still says to Iran: "Give up your nuclear program, or else" to which they say "No," and to which we come back a few weeks later, with new sanctions, and say, "Well, have you had enough yet? How about now?" This kind of desperate escalation, coming on the heals of so many other recent military entanglements, makes us look weak and unimaginative.
Also, sanctions won't work unless the world -- especially China -- is willing to stop buying Iranian oil, and stop shipping them refined gasoline. Iran has proven to be immune to any other kind of sanctions.
We need to have a new beginning, a new framework for discussion.
To begin with, we must distinguish between Iran's legitimate desires for nuclear energy -- which they are entitled to pursue as signatories to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Agreement -- and the potential for destructive use of enriched uranium for bomb-making. These are NOT the same thing, and recognition of that fact opens up a world of possibilities, which I will detail below.
But first, since everyone has talked only about the reasons why Iran should not pursue nuclear power, let me briefly state why it is in our interest that Iran does pursue nuclear power:
- It would reduce greenhouse gases. Iran currently burns oil for its power. This contributes to greenhouse gases and should be discouraged. Iran contributes relatively little to world output of CO2, but it's growing, and everyone must do their part. Nuclear power does not produce greenhouse gases.
- It would encourage the development of a middle class. We keep talking about how we want Iran to develop a middle class to counter the influence of the mullahs and the undereducated poor masses. Well, it is hard to imagine a more middle class professional than a nuclear engineer. Also, training to be an engineer opens the mind not just to science, but also to a more liberal view of the world in other areas. Demand for real political and economic reform will come from an emerging middle class.
- It would stretch finite supplies of oil longer. Whether we are at peak oil now, or soon will be, we need to buy some time while alternatives are developed. Allowing Iran to power their electrical needs with nuclear power would buy us some time.
- It would make Iran dependent on the rest of the world for uranium (or thorium, as we'll see in a moment). Unlike oil, Iran has few uranium/thorium resources of its own. They will be less likely to cast themselves in the role of pariah state when they are dependent on the world for their power needs.
- It would be a source of Iranian national pride. This should not be regarded as against our interests. It is the states that feel maligned and disrespected that are prone to lash out in anger, not those who are engaged as partners on the economic stage.
Just so we are all on the same page, in case there is still any doubt, we should make a formal declaration that we will respond with full military force if Iran attacks Israel. If it comes to that, I think even the Arabs will not blame us for destroying such a dangerous neighbor. And, we should continue to assist Israel in every security measure they need, and make it publicly known we are doing so, since it is Israel, for the most part, and not Iran, who most closely reflects our values and interests.
But let's not be negative.
Here is my proposal, in three parts,which can be applied together or separately. Adopting these proposals should please all parties. Iran would get its nuclear power. Israel and America would be assured that Iran's nuclear fuel could not find its way into bombs.
1. Investigate and assist Iran (yes, really) in developing nuclear power plants that cannot produce plutonium, for example, pebble bed reactors. These reactors are being built for production in China and in France -- which gets 80 percent of its power from nuclear sources already (We also need to centralize nuclear reprocessing as France does, so spent uranium is safe to dispose of.) For technical reasons, the embedded fuel in this kind of reactor cannot be used to produce highly enriched uranium, the source for nuclear bombs. This takes dangerous bomb-production off the table.. These kinds of thorium reactors cannot meltdown either, even when water is removed during a power outage, for example. If Fukushima had been running pebble bed reactors, or Liquid Salt Thorium reactors, there would have been no disastrous radiation leaks.
2. Involve Iran in the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP). This is the global program to develop safe and efficient forms of nuclear energy that cannot be subverted into weapon making (i.e. no plutonium is produced, and radioactive components cannot be separated from the reactor). The U.S. and Japan are quite far along in this. It is the reactor-in-a-box approach. This program was started in the Bush administration (yes, really).
3. Set up a Global Uranium Bank. Just recently, New Scientist magazine published an article on how nations are pressing for a Global Uranium Bank to supply the inevitably increasing number of nuclear players in the world with internationally monitored sources of fuel. There is even agreement on setting up such a station in Iran, to be monitored by the IEAE. Even if thorium-based nuclear power plants aren't yet ready for prime-time, though it is strongly in the world's interest that they be made to be, we can control the supply of dangerous uranium through a global bank of it, and take back the waste for reprocessing that way too.
You'll notice that I have emphasized scientific approaches to this conflict. This is in keeping with Obama's stated intention to return science to its rightful place in decision-making. America has to lead to a more peaceful world with the latest technology.
We also have to stop treating every country we have a disagreement with as a mortal enemy and to truly begin treating military responses as the very last, and least favorable, of a long line of answers.
If Iran truly wants to be a leader in their region, and perhaps the world, as Ahmadinejad claims, they will look forward to this opportunity to use the latest technology since it is safer, cheaper, and better. Most importantly, these alternative approaches guarantee both the peaceful use of nuclear power and security in their region. If they still refuse to change, the world would have a right to demand to know why.
Pebble-Bed reactors and LSTRS are just two possible reactor types being considered recently. There are others, and by being an active and respected member of this partnership, Iran would finally have a chance to attain the technological leadership it says it wants and deserves.