The Middle East is on track toward a nuclear proliferation nightmare as Iranian officials have expressed their intent to vastly expand Iran’s domestic nuclear enrichment capacity by the beginning of the next decade, Saudi Arabia is pursuing its own nuclear program, and Russia has just announced plans to partner with Egypt on the development of “an entire new atomic industry,” according to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
This is a region with an abundance of sunlight at a time when solar power is becoming cost competitive with conventional forms of electricity production, according to a January report from the Middle East Solar Industry Association.
Solar has none of the security and environmental liabilities inherent to nuclear power. Moreover, in addition to reducing heavily subsidized consumption of oil and natural gas that could be exported or put to more value-added uses such as petrochemical production, solar power could also be exported to Europe. This is a market with great potential for growth that could provide jobs to a region suffering from an unemployed, youthful population whose potential is not being fulfilled.
In order to build momentum toward expansion of this market, the U.S. should invest in public-private partnerships on a bilateral and multilateral level through vehicles including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Department of Energy, OPIC, and World Bank. It should provide research and development and financial investment opportunities to the countries of the region, making it economically rational and politically attractive for them to pursue both residential- and commercial-scale projects including solar energy storage, which by some estimates has or will soon reach cost parity with nuclear power.
For some countries the dubious security logic of a nuclear program may prove too tempting to forgo and they will use the cover of civilian nuclear projects to pursue nuclear weapons. This is a chimera, however, that will only lead to greater insecurity as neighbors work feverishly to acquire their own weapons and urge outside powers including the U.S. to provide them with protection in the interim.
It may be too late to prevent this already-unfolding dynamic from continuing but one thing is certain: if the U.S. does not come up with a comprehensive strategy to shift the Middle East off the nuclear track — including bringing not only sanctions but its positive economic and financial powers to bear — the current security situation will become increasingly unmanageable, with potentially destabilizing consequences for the global economy.
Iranian officials in particular have sought to reassure the U.S. that Iran’s nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only and have accused the U.S. of trying to deny Iran its right to technological advancement. Perhaps the best way U.S. policymakers could test their Iranian counterparts’ intentions and demonstrate that they welcome Iranian technological strides would be to offer solar research and development and investment partnerships as a means of meeting Iran’s ostensible energy and economic objectives. Iran could still retain the right to continue its nuclear research but if its ostensible goals could be met through solar or other energy sources and it were appropriately compensated for its work to date on its nuclear program it might decide to agree to a nuclear R&D program rather than the 190,000 SWU the Supreme Leader has declared as Iran’s “absolute need.”
Some policymakers will undoubtedly protest that the U.S. should not be investing taxpayer dollars for such purposes in a region rich in oil and natural gas resources and with corruption problems that impede private investment. This argument, while certainly not without merit, should be weighed against the cost of more militarized U.S. nuclear non-proliferation efforts in the region, which may very well culminate in military conflict with Iran in the near future.
Lead image: Iran’s Energy Plan. Credit: Shutterstock