Enrich Iranians, Not Uranium

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 blood.

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.