Amid economic inflation and the loss of European oil markets squeezing the vitality out of Iran’s economy, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced to a supportive crowd that Iran has advanced its nuclear program to the point where it can produce its own nuclear fuel rods and enrich uranium up to 20% with a new generation of centrifuges, recently installed in the country’s Natanz facility.
From a scientific point of view, the progress is commendable. Iran joins an exclusive club of countries with the ability to produce nuclear technology domestically. Yet, three important questions come out of this development:
1) When will Iran be able to build a nuclear reactor domestically and export the technology?
2) Are these advances a sign that we should accept a first law of international relations: that technology inevitably spreads and nuclear technology is no exception, and as such, forget sanctions and turn to diplomacy?
3) How long can “oil diplomacy” last?
In his speech, Ahmadinejad told the country’s nuclear scientists to build four more nuclear reactors. The cited article includes a tidbit that a research reactor is already being built in Arak, and the four more reactors will be constructed for the purpose of producing isotopes for medical research related to cancer.
An important caveat to open here is that if a country is to produce a nuclear reactor, it must come with stringent safety standards, effective and redundant control systems, as well as the use of advanced materials. The most advanced reactors in the world are produced in France and Russia, which are already at the stage of third and fourth generation technology. By comparison, Teheran’s nascent program is basing itself off American 1960s technology, and will produce its first generation reactors. The lack of a tradition in the field means that technologically, Iran may be 30 to 40 years behind their most advanced modern analogues, but the catch-up window may not be as long if potential Chinese or Russian support is factored into the equation.
As with fire, electricity, the automobile and the Internet, technology spreads around the world irrespective of what we do; we can retard it, but we cannot stop it. Maybe we can call it the first law of international relations, and so far, nuclear technology is proving to be no exception to this “law.” PolicyMic pundit George Schieck reflected this idea in a poignant comment on my last article on this subject and it is important to note that when it comes to nuclear management on the international level, in the long run confrontation has always given way to diplomacy – American foreign policy has not been exceptional to this trend either. We have seen that sanctions are not productive in changing Iran’s behaviour – if one set of customers disappears, others will replace them: Latin America, Southeast Asia, and Africa are all emerging markets hungry for energy.
Oil diplomacy identifies an old doctrine of changing the behaviour of an actor by choking its economic capacities – there are enough historical precedents to evidence it. The hope is that leaving Iranian oil without a market will drive inflation so high that it will destroy the country’s monetary system, create hyperinflation, reset the economy and with it, the regime. What hyperinflation does to a country is visible if one only looks to Eastern Europe in the 1990s. This kind of policy will, in the long run, only serves to alienate Iran further from the West. Moreover, what is the critical juncture when Iran will not only strategically rely on nuclear energy, but also export it? Have we already passed it?
For this reason, yet again, I advocate for diplomacy, not confrontation on the issue.