The United States and the majority of the international community are increasingly concerned about the possibility of a nuclear Iran for a number of reasons. First, Iran has proven itself an ally of terrorists and could pass nuclear technology to them. Second, Iran has declared itself the primary enemy of Israel, a country that is strategically important to the delicate political balance in the Middle East. Finally, a nuclear Iran would cause other Middle Eastern countries to fear for their own safety and seek their own nuclear capabilities, resulting in additional destabilization in the region.
Despite widespread belief to the contrary, Iran does not have enough oil to sustain domestic power for even three generations. Currently, Iran obtains the majority of its energy from oil and natural gas and has no plan to transition to other energy sources. This creates a problem regarding Iran's future domestic energy demand, and leads Iran to seek nuclear enrichment for energy in addition to any geopolitical reasons it already may have for doing so. Additionally,it is clear that the Iranian people are very interested in obtaining regional leadership and respect. Currently, Iran's government is pursuing legitimacy by seeking nuclear capabilities for military purposes. These capabilities would offer increased regional standing and alternative energy resources, but do so in a way that would destabilize the Middle East. The United States must negate both the energy and status incentives Iran has for pursuing nuclear technology.
By training Iranian citizens to produce renewable energy such as solar power or wind power, and providing materials to help them build their renewable energy capacity, the United States could offer Iran a solution to its legitimate energy problems. Further, it could also offer Iran an alternative, non-nuclear path to recognition as a regional power. If Iran pursued the training programs offered through such a deal and invested further in renewable energy sources, it might become a global leader in renewable energy. As oil, natural gas, and other fossil fuel supplies decrease, renewable energy technology will be particularly valuable in the Middle East because Arab countries will need large amounts of energy to desalinize water as conventional energy supplies become scarce. Those countries will absolutely need a regional energy leader and Iran can fill this gap before other Middle Eastern countries invest their own resources in new energy sources.
Although many governments' leaders instinctively turn to economic sanctions in an attempt to discourage Iran, economic sanctions are extremely difficult to manage because of the extent Iranian markets have been globalized and the value of Iran's resources. In comparison, an economic treaty provides greater incentive to forego nuclear enrichment because the agreement would offer Iran a solution to its own looming energy crisis.
While such an agreement might be expensive for the United States, the cost would surely be less than the cost of entering into a military conflict with Iran or assisting another country's attack on Iran. Additionally, the cost of an economic agreement would not exceed the cost of a "do nothing" approach, which would cause severe strategic problems regarding the stability of the Middle East. The price of the agreement could also be lessened if the United States persuaded other countries to contribute. Considering the threat a nuclear Iran would pose to numerous countries, finding support should not be difficult.
As policymakers consider possible methods for deterring Iran's nuclear proliferation, the United States should choose to pursue an economic pact with Iran that would eliminate Iran's incentives for nuclear enrichment, rooted in energy resources and regional power dynamics. This pact should involve other western countries, as well as many of the Middle Eastern governments that also have reasons to deter Iranian enrichment. It is absolutely necessary to pursue this because Iran's obtainment of nuclear weaponry could result in regional turmoil, further proliferation, and dissemination of weapons to terrorist groups. The implementation of this idea would require more research into the specific needs of the Iranian and the Middle Eastern economic systems as well as research into the limitations of renewable energy. This idea would also require significant diplomatic efforts over a relatively long period of time but is a necessary investment in American interests and national security in the long-term.
Keri Majikes is a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. This article was first published by our partner Roosevelt Institute Campus Network in their "10 Ideas for Defense & Diplomacy" publication.