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Why the Nuclear Programme Undermines Iran's Independence - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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“Whatever happens, grin and declare victory!”

This is the advice given by “Yalanchi Pahlevan”, a character in Iranian folklore, to anyone with heroic ambitions but lacking the wherewithal to achieve them. A puny shrimp of a man, “Yalanchi Pahlevan” imitates big muscular fellows in picking fights with toughs several times his size. When, inevitably, he is thrown like a feather, he just gets up, beats his chest and declares victory.

Islamic Republic President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would be wrong to imitate the “Yalanchi” by describing the latest United Nations’ resolution as another “great victory” for his administration.

Ahmadinejad tries to justify his confrontational approach to the issue in the name of “independence.” He tells Iranians that they ought to suffer in order to achieve “energy independence” by developing a full nuclear cycle.

However, the truth is that the controversial nuclear programme, which the UN believes is aimed at bomb making not just producing electricity, has had the opposite effect so far.

The latest Security Council resolution imposes at least two significant restrictions on Iran’s independence.

First, it makes it mandatory for UN members to stop and search all ships and aircraft carrying goods to Iran under the pretext that these might be of dual use nature.

The spectacle of the US and/or allied navies stopping and searching Iran-bound ships at the entrance to the Gulf of Oman would certainly amount to a restriction of Iranian independence. The same would be true of Iran-bound and/or Iran-owned aircraft anywhere in the world.

Secondly, virtually the whole of Iranian trade could be brought under international control, much like what happened to Iraq under Saddam Hussein.

The new resolution demands that UN members verify trade with Iran to prevent it from acquiring dual-purpose goods and services. Once a monitoring mechanism is in place, the measure could slow down , if not actually reduce, trade with Iran as every transaction would have to be vetted by the ministries of defence and foreign affairs in the countries concerned. Even if some countries decide to cheat, they would still have to observe certain procedures, which could mean a costly bureaucratic nightmare.

The conventional wisdom is that the Islamic Republic has prepared itself for such developments by stockpiling essential goods for the next three years, at the end of which it might achieve the capacity to make a bomb.

However, let us return to Ahmadinejad’s central claim that uranium enrichment, which the UN wants stopped, ensures Iran’s energy independence.

In fact, the opposite is the case.

The nuclear programme will make Iran dependent on the outside world for its energy needs as never before.

The first form of dependence concerns the building of nuclear power stations. Since the 1970s, Iran has had the technology and the skilled labour to build hydroelectric and oil or natural gas-fueled power stations. However, it has absolutely no capacity for building, let alone designing, nuclear power stations.

The only way it can achieve such a capacity is through years of cooperation with one or more of the older industrial nations.

This is what the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany have been offering Tehran since 2006 only to face total rejection by Ahmadinejad.

For the time being Russia is trying to complete Iran’s only nuclear power station, designed and initially half-built by Germans. However, there is no guarantee that Russia, or anyone else, would be prepared to build any other nuclear plants in Iran before it sorts out its dispute with the UN.

The second form of dependence stems from the fact that the enriched uranium needed for operating Iran’s only nuclear power plant, located on the Bushehr Peninsula, must conform to codes developed and fixed by Russia. The uranium Iran is enriching cannot be used at Bushehr. This means that Russia could shut down the Iranian plant whenever it so wishes. How is that for independence?

The third form of dependence stems from the fact that Iran’s uranium ore deposits, located close to the Lut desert, could provide fuel for two or three power plants for less than a decade.

This means that even if Iran were able to design and build its own nuclear power plants, it would still be dependent on imports of uranium ore to ensure their fuel beyond the first 10 years. (The average life of a nuclear power plant is 40 years.) In other words, Iran has enough ore with which to make 100 or so bombs, but not enough to provide fuel for two or three medium-sizes nuclear power plants.

The fourth form of dependence Iran would experience is related to its inability to handle spent fuel from nuclear power plants. At present only six countries have the technology to reprocess those substances. Iran would depend on their goodwill to get rid of the spent fuel from its putative nuclear power plants. What to do with spent nuclear fuel is one of the biggest challenges facing countries that use this form of energy. And, despite much research into ideas such as firing the spent fuel into the space with specially designed rockets, there is as yet no satisfactory solution.

Finally, Iran would face a fifth form of dependence.

Nuclear power plants have to be de-commissioned and mothballed after three or four decades but remain dangerous for several centuries. As a British government study showed last year, de-commissioning and mothballing a nuclear plant is costlier than building one. Managing the environmental effects of de-commissioned nuclear power plants is also a costly process at present mastered by six or seven nations only.

President Ahmadinejad is leading Iran into a potentially dangerous confrontation with the UN over an issue that has more to do with hubris and misguided radicalism than Iran’s national interest. The nuclear programme, even in its peaceful form, will make Iran more dependent, not less, on the outside world.

Iran has enough oil and natural gas to meet its energy needs for another five centuries. It also has the scientific and technical capacity to build hydroelectric, solar and wind-propelled power plants. It does not need nuclear power, a form of energy for which Iran lacks the raw material, scientific base, and technical skill to design and operate without outside assistance.

The nuclear adventure of the Tehran leadership is a threat to Iran’s independence and, because it may be used as a pretext for war, undermines the nation’s security. Waving a fist and shouting ” victory” is a cat that one can walk only up to a point, as Saddam’s experience has shown. Even ” Yalanchi Pahlevan” would have had the wisdom to walk that cat back before it was too late.

Amir Taheri

Amir Taheri

Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987. Mr. Taheri has won several prizes for his journalism, and in 2012 was named International Journalist of the Year by the British Society of Editors and the Foreign Press Association in the annual British Media Awards.

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