How much is a nuclear program worth? For Iran, well over $100 billion.
According to a new report, keeping Iran's condemned nuclear program going has already cost Tehran more than $100 billion in lost oil revenue and foreign investments alone.
Iranian Presidents office/AP/File
After a half century of work, the benefits of Iranâs nuclear program remain few: It provides less than 2 percent of Iranâs energy needs and some medical isotopes and has demonstrated scientific prowess.
But the costs of the nuclear project have also been enormous: More than $100 billion in lost oil revenue and foreign investment alone, according to a report released today by two Washington think tanks.
âSanctions have raised the cost of Iranâs nuclear pursuit. Yes, they are proceeding with their [program], but the cost is going up,â says Alireza Nader, an Iran analyst at the RAND Corporation in Washington, a security think tank not involved with the study.
The high cost of Iranâs nuclear effort âÂ which continues to grow, even under a US-engineered global sanctions regime â have raised questions for years about Iranâs ultimate intent.Â Is it to show, as Iranâs top officials claim, that the ârevolutionaryâ Islamic Republic canÂ defyÂ sanctions, and Western and Israeli hostility, proving itself a âmodelâ of independence for other Islamic and developing countries?
Or is the only explanation for such dogged persistence that Iran is determined to achieve nuclear weapons capacity âÂ if not a weapon itself âÂ regardless of the cost and despite its own public rejection of nuclear weapons as un-Islamic?
âIranâs nuclear program has deep roots. It cannot be âendedâ or âbombed away',â â making diplomacy the âonly long-term solutionâ to ensure it remains peaceful, conclude report authors Ali Vaez for the Federation of American Scientists, and Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.Â
Iran has been âoverplaying"Â the nationalist aspects of its nuclear ambitions,Â rendering âany significant nuclear retreat tantamount to an act of capitulation, if not political suicide,â the report says.
Meanwhile, âWashingtonâs overwhelming focus on coercion and military threats has backed US policymakers into a rhetorical corner," it asserts.
In public and in ongoing nuclear talks, Washington must answer some key questionsÂ in order to persuade Iran and its public to consider a deal,Â says the report: âWhat could Iranians collectively gain by a nuclear compromise, other than a reduction of sanctions and the threat of war? How could a more conciliatory Iranian approach improve the countryâs economy and advance its technological âÂ including nuclear âÂ prowess?â
The report is the first to tabulate the cost of Iranâs nuclear program, and therefore gauge its significance for the Islamic regime.
âItâs reasonable to argue that sanctions and pressures and diplomacy, positive and negative inducements â if you donât want to call them âcarrots and sticksâ â have a bearing on Iranâs calculations, because itâs not North Korea,â says Mr. Nader, whose recent work examines Iranâs motivations for continuing such a high-cost path.
âIt gets lost in this town as to why they are pursuing this [nuclear] capability. Itâs not to nuke Israel; they donât want to nuke the US or Saudi Arabia, which makes zero sense,â says Nader. âItâs deterrence, and you donât hear US officials talk about their deterrent needs.â
The concerns of negotiators of the P5+1 group (the US, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany) echo those of decades ago, when in the 1970s Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was a close ally and had carte blanche US military and diplomatic support.
Back then, Iranâs nuclear program saw a 12-fold increase in the number of nuclear scientists in just three years, the report notes, and the same questions were raised about Iranâs intentions: issues of sensitive technology, fuel stockpiles, and more safeguards to prevent any push for a bomb.
After the 1979 Islamic revolution, Iranâs nuclear effort was put on ice for years, dismissedÂ by the new governmentÂ as a costly hindrance imposed by the West, and finallyÂ buried when Iranâs revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini said the unfinished power reactor at Bushehr should be used as âsilos to store wheat,â according to the report.
Still,Â afterÂ Iranâs nuclear program was resurrected in the mid-1980s, it absorbed Iranian assets. By one count, building the uranium enrichment facility at Natanz beneath 25 feet of concrete at one point consumed Iranâs entire concrete output.
More to the story
While the report notes that it is ânearly impossibleâ to calculate the actual costs of Iranâs nuclear program,Â it gives examples of howÂ some of Iranâs efforts do not make sense in a traditional cost-benefit analysis.Â
Iran has limited quantities of its own natural uranium, for example, such that even under the âmost optimistic variantsâ it would only have enough known supplies to fuel its sole reactor at Bushehr for nine years. If âtotal known and speculative resourcesâ are counted,Â at mostÂ Iran could run seven reactors forÂ less thanÂ a decade, according to the report.Â
And, by some estimates, relying on nuclear fuel enriched domestically could cost Iran $125 millionÂ moreÂ per year than buying fuel on the international market.
According to the report,Â Bushehr today provides just 2 percent of Iranâs electricity needs â and 15 percent of the electricity that courses through the national grid âis lost through old and ill-maintained transmission lines.â
Separately, the report adds, Iranâs solar energy potential may be 13 times higher than the countryâs âtotal energy needs.â Â Â
âI ask myself the question: Why is the regime in its entirety ready to pay such a high price, and make such great sacrifices, if there is no military component?â asks Ali Alfoneh, an Iran specialist at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington.
Too far along to give in
In the 1970s, France, assisted by the US and others, helped IranÂ developÂ nuclear technology that might have led eventually to an Iranian bomb.Â The prospect did not raise alarms like it would today.Â
âThe Shahâs regime had a responsible foreign and security policy, and âŚ was not perceived as a threat, despite the fact it was militarily superior to many of the neighbors,â saysÂ Mr.Â Alfoneh. But the Islamic Republic âhas managed in the course of the last 34 years to be perceived as the greatest threat in the region, because of the policy of exporting the revolution, the rhetoric of Iranian leaders, [and] irresponsible measures," he says.
The big investment made by Iran already means it is not likely to be negotiated away, saysÂ Mr. Vaez â who is now with the International Crisis Group â and Mr. Sadjadpour, in their report.
âMany members of the US Congress will continue to demand that Iran be left with âno capabilityâ to produce nuclear weapons,â including halting all enrichment, the report states.Â
But this is ânot essential from a nonproliferation standpointâ to limit Iranâs program, it continues. âMore importantly, there is virtually no chance that Iran will abdicate what it and many developing countries now insist is a right âÂ a right to enrichment.â