One of the major sticking points in the P5+1 negotiations with Iran is the number of centrifuges Iran should be permitted to have as part of a domestic uranium enrichment capability. It currently has approximately 20,000 IR-1 centrifuges, about 9,000 of which are currently installed. The Rouhani administration has reportedly been negotiating for upward of 50,000 and the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, recently stated that Iran would need 190,000 in the coming years as it expanded its ostensible civilian nuclear power program. The Obama administration has reportedly maintained the position that Iran must reduce this number to the hundreds or low thousands.
The greater number of centrifuges Iran puts into operation, the shorter its nuclear weapons breakout time will be. Its estimated breakout time before the implementation of the Joint Plan of Action (“interim nuclear agreement”) in January 2014 was approximately two months. Under the JPA it is approximately six months.
Even if Iran does not take the final step toward nuclear weapons acquisition, threat is a matter of capability and perception of intent. Saudi Arabia is already proceeding forward with plans for its own nuclear program, likely at least in part as a hedge against Iran. Iran’s moves may also provoke Israel to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities if the U.S. does not act first. If Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons, it will likely find itself caught in an increasingly tense and dangerous security dilemma of its own making.
The question remains, how can the international community accommodate Iran’s ostensible civilian energy and research and development ambitions without compromising its own security?
Solar energy is perhaps the next most logical answer after natural gas and could serve as a complement to it, enabling Iran to shift more of its natural gas to exports or production of petrochemical products rather than domestic consumption.
The World Energy Council and Bloomberg New Energy Finance estimated in October 2013 that solar photovoltaic projects in southern Europe “are able to obtain capacity factors of upwards of 18-19%, bringing down [the region’s levelized cost of energy (LCOE)] to just over USD100/MWh.” Iran receives far more solar insolation and therefore its LCOE will be significantly lower, along with capital expenditure costs, potentially making it more attractive than nuclear energy.
The problem of solar energy’s intermittent nature could be solved by utilizing Iran’s natural gas reserves as well as through solar storage technologies, which would add to the cost of solar projects but would also provide an opportunity for the U.S. and European Union countries to invite Iran to join research and development projects and joint ventures in this area. The P5+1 should offer Iran attractive financing options for such an initiative, with regard for its considerable expenditures on its nuclear program to date.
Congress in particular should factor in the potential costs of sustaining a policy of isolation or returning to a course of confrontation with Iran. The National Iranian American Council recently estimated that “sanctions caused the United States to forego between $134.7 billion and $175.3 billion in potential export revenue to Iran between 1995-2012.” The United States’ conflict with Iraq, moreover, is estimated to have cost the U.S. approximately $2.2 trillion and counting.
Military strikes against Iran’s nuclear program could push the global economy back into recession if it resulted in a closure of the Strait of Hormuz. If Iran retaliated against U.S. military strikes in a serious enough manner, ejected IAEA inspectors, and proceeded with a weaponization program, a full-scale ground conflict against Iran could be expected to cost at least as much as the Iraq War.
Congress could, alternatively, help fund the expansion of an Iranian solar market at a small fraction of these costs and in so doing pave the way toward better economic and political relations.
India is planning to build a 4,000MW solar plant at an estimated cost of $4.4 billion. India’s proposed solar plant would produce four times the electricity generation capacity of Iran’s Bushehr nuclear power plant. Five such solar plants would meet Iran’s ostensible longer-term goal of producing 20,000MW of electricity from nuclear power.
Iran has invested a great deal of money and prestige into its nuclear program and is not likely to compromise on major elements of it without serious positive incentives. There is a chance that it can be persuaded to change course toward a more tenable policy but Congress should urge the Obama administration to test such a proposal now while there is still time.
Thomas Buonomo is a former U.S. Army Intelligence Officer and geopolitical risk analyst specializing in U.S.-Middle East relations and energy security issues.