The tense relations America has with Iran today over the country’s nuclear ambitions are nothing new. In terms of American relationships with nuclear-ambitious countries, history shows a trend in which the U.S. begins with opposition to a country and ends with eventual tolerance and agreement of nuclear co-existing.
The United States has historically formed working nuclear relationships with powers that are more powerful and volatile than Iran. As I’ve said in previous PolicyMic articles, this has been the case with China, India and Pakistan — relationships that started with America opposing the nuclear ability of each country. The relationships with India and Pakistan are also multidimensional. India enjoys a nuclear agreement with the U.S. after a nuclear embargo of over 30 years. Pakistan is an important regional ally for American interests in the Middle East and this alone is a significant factor in assuring a working U.S.-Pakistani nuclear relationship, with American influence in the region set to diminish rapidly following the end of the Iraq War and the eventual withdrawal from Afghanistan in two years’ time.
The latest round of hot rhetoric and saber-rattling out of Europe and Teheran suggest that the crisis will likely escalate before a pragmatic solution is found. The oil embargo is a powerful symbol of American and European opposition to Iran’s nuclear program, but it is unlikely to change the status quo. The most likely outcome is a further distancing of Iran from the West and its reorientation to regional partners — to whom most of its oil goes. The display of power in the Strait of Hormuz might be acknowledged with a few demonstrative missile tests.
Nuclear technology is not the exclusive right of any one state, but the political climate suggests the opposite for Iran. Historically, Washington is opposed to any state that seeks an independent foreign policy that is at odds with American interests. However, current behavior will only reinforce the level of mistrust between the West and Iran, with the likely result that it will likely cause an armed exchange — the very pretext Teheran would need to militarize nuclear technology out of legitimate concerns for its national security. The Pentagon must exercise patience with Iran.
The reasons we must consider are different and they deal with the commercial side of nuclear energy. Atomic power is a very lucrative business. There are several major players on the nuclear markets — Westinghouse, Areva, Siemens, and Rosatom, among others — compete for market share in power-hungry emerging markets. China is one of the most important in this respect, with both Russians and Americans involved in projects in the country.
An investment into a single nuclear power station is worth billions, with a window of 60 or more years on return of investment and profitability; with several, the effect is multiplied. If a country possesses domestically-grown nuclear technology, not only does it become a competitive exporter, but also its own industries, technology, research and education capacities dramatically improve; of course, Western diplomacy would rather not have such developments take place in Iran. Politically, it translates into added legitimacy for an uncooperative regime and one more commercial competitor that presents a viable threat to established commercial nuclear companies.
Nuclear investment is set to increase in the 21st century, despite some high-profile opposition, such as Germany’s decision to abandon nuclear power.
Nuclear weapons are not what worry Europe and the U.S. about the development of Iran’s nuclear program. Any military action in the short term will ensure that Teheran acquires them. The big worry is that one day, we might see an Iran-Iraq civilian nuclear deal — or maybe one between Iran and Bangladesh. It would significantly marginalize the position of established Western and Russian nuclear corporations and their ability to operate in emerging markets, thus the valiant opposition. Conversely, it would effectively turn Iran into a superpower. Much like a unified Korea would too — just, not yet.
The historical problem for American and Western foreign policy in general, is how to prevent self-government in far-off parts of the world. Nuclear power presents a powerful deterrent to such behavior, and Iran is on the verge of getting it. Yes, Teheran is not friendly to Western interests; the history of the relations between Teheran and the West is certainly not flattering, but it is also a reason to move forward.
Pragmatic engagement is the key, not fear-mongering and hapless punditry, supplanted by a short-sighted and counter-productive foreign policy.
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