Is the Iranian nuclear challenge impossible to
solve? To judge by President Ahmadinejad's fiery rhetoric and his seeming indifference
to world opinion, you could be forgiven for thinking so. The mullahs now look
ready to defy the UN's month-long ultimatum on uranium enrichment, which expires
this week, and there is no obvious way to stop them from going nuclear: the
use of armed force looks certain to be impractical against well-defended targets,
and there are very few effective economic sanctions that the international community
can impose on a leading oil exporter.
There is, however, one other approach that just might give grounds of hope.
Far from threatening the Iranians, it would do the very opposite by rewarding
them. And far from inflicting pain, injury, and suffering on either military
personnel or innocent civilians, it would instead deliberately increase their
standards of living and comfort.
The answer to the mullahs' nuclear challenge instead lies in large-scale economic
investment inside Iran. While the member states of the European Union, particularly
Italy, Spain, and Germany, already trade there extensively, Iran offers a vast,
fast-growing, and relatively untapped market that Western governments can strongly
encourage their national enterprises to exploit much more fully. Far better
still if the United States were to end its decade-long embargo, imposed by the
Clinton administration in 1995, and begin to trade with Tehran as liberally
as it has always traded with other regimes badly stained with innocent civilian
Of course, any such proposal to trade with Iran would send shock waves through
Congress, where legislation is currently in passage to tighten, not liberalize,
American commerce with Tehran and to impose harder secondary sanctions on other
countries that trade with Iran. Providing the Iranians with foreign currency,
say the senators and representatives of Capitol Hill, merely allows the mullahs
to subsidize both "terror" and their hugely expensive nuclear program.
Yet this easy parallel between "commerce" and "nuclear arms"
is in fact very dubious, and there is a case for supposing that the two, far
from being complementary, in fact exclude each other.
Why, first of all, would the Iranians want nuclear arms? The most important
reason is almost certainly self-defense. Surrounded on either side by nuclear
states such as Pakistan and Israel, Iran has good reason to fear nuclear blackmail
unless it has its own ultimate deterrent, especially when it has for thousands
of years suffered so much foreign invasion and subjugation. And because the
United States has such a strong military presence in the region, it would be
most surprising if Iran didn't want to walk the nuclear path.
Besides self-defense, the other main reason is probably national prestige.
All the other members of the elite "nuclear club," not least Britain,
France, and India, were deeply conscious of the elevated states their membership
bestowed, and Iran is almost certainly no different, wanting recognition by
the outside world as a leading regional player in its own right.
In a single stroke, large-scale commercial and economic investment in Iran
by the Western powers would address both these concerns and therefore undermine
the very forces that are driving Tehran toward its alleged nuclear ends. On
the one hand, it would help convince the Iranians that their critics have an
interest in maintaining the status quo rather than implementing the regime change
that would justify the development of a nuclear deterrent. Instead, the Iranians
would recognize that Western businesses and their governments would have much
to lose and nothing to gain from any protracted political disorder.
Stronger trade links would also raise standards of living among ordinary people
in a way likely to undermine the importance of national prestige. The role and
place of your own country doesn't seem quite so important when you are aware
of your own affluence and material comfort: in poverty-stricken Pakistan, former
Prime Minister Ali Bhutto famously implored his fellow citizens to "eat
grass" to render possible the construction of a bomb, whereas in affluent
Britain considerations of "national prestige" are virtually unheard
of. Besides, you have enough prestige if foreign governments and businesses
are queuing up to do business with you.
And then there is another longer-term consequence of raising standards of living
in any country. Put money in people's pockets and of course you change their
ideas, expectations, and values: Edward Gibbon famously wrote about the corrosive
effects of opulence on the Roman mentality, but one only has to look at the
changes in Britain, where a strand of plutocracy began to creep in more than
a decade back, to see the powerful changes it can bring about.
If standards of living were to rise dramatically in Iran over the coming years,
the days of the theocratic regime would be numbered. The regime would gradually
lose its Islamist character – something it was doing in any case before Ahmadinejad's
election last summer – and there would be strong popular pressure for political
freedoms to match economic liberties. The emergence of a new political order
in Iran might not necessarily change the country's supposed nuclear ambitions,
but it would at least end the chronic state of mistrust with the U.S. that makes
the prospect of such a bomb so particularly alarming.
So instead of bombing Iran or imposing any sanctions, let's do the very opposite.
We need to invest hard and make the Iranians wealthy.