Archive for June, 2009

The Implications of a Revolution in Iran

June 23, 2009

The political turmoil in Iran over the apparently fraudulent results of the Jun. 12 presidential election pits conservatives and the Iranian regime against reformers who want more freedom and better relations with the West.  Millions of protesters have taken to the streets, and their opponents have used deadly force against them.  There is a significant chance that recent events in Iran could precipitate a revolution that would oust the ruling clerics, who wield ultimate power in the Islamic Republic and are not elected by the public, and replace them with democratically chosen leaders; according to a recent independent public opinion poll, nearly 80 percent of Iranians want to be able to elect their country’s top officials, though it is uncertain how many would be willing to fight for the right to do so.

The implications of a revolution in Iran for the world and the US are major.  According to the aforementioned poll, 77 percent of Iranians want normalized relations with the US.  As part of a peace deal, 70 percent of Iranians support giving international inspectors access to Iran’s nuclear sites and pledging not to develop nuclear weapons in exchange for more trade and economic assistance; as part of the same agreement, a majority of Iranians would favor recognizing the state of Israel and ceasing support for Shiite militias in Iraq.

Thus, a democratic revolution in Iran, the most strategically important country in the Middle East with the possible exception of Saudi Arabia, could facilitate efforts to stem nuclear proliferation, combat terrorists groups, stabilize Iraq and negotiate an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.  Whether such a revolution will occur in the near future depends on several factors, including the determination of dissidents to effect change and the actions of the ruling elite and their allies.

Revolution in the Air?

June 22, 2009

Millions of Iranians have taken to the streets to protest the apparently fraudulent results of the Jun. 12 presidential election, which gave conservative incumbent president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a 30 percent margin of victory over his main opponent, reformist candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi, in what was expected to be a very close race.  In response, Iranian leaders have used force against peaceful protesters and adamantly refused to annul the dubious election results. 

Ironically, by allowing the election to be rigged in favor of his chosen presidential candidate and then using all the means at his disposal to uphold the incredible results, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, an unelected official who holds the real power in Iran and controls his nation’s foreign policy, may have precipitated the eventual overthrow of  his clerical regime.  Allowing a reformist candidate to win the presidency would have diffused dissent at the cost of only moderate changes in domestic policy as evidenced by the failure of former President Mohammad Khatami to make major reforms.  But now revolutionary thoughts are being expressed by young Iranians who do not want to be governed by authoritarian theocrats.  Whether a new revolution in Iran that led to the overthrow of the ayatollahs would be peaceful or violent would largely depend on the actions of the Revolutionary Guards, the hardcore militant arm of the Iranian leadership, and how many of their fellow citizens they would be willing to kill in defense of their masters.

A revolution in Iran may not occur this week or this month or this year.  But the seeds of such an event may have been planted during the last 10 days that will bear fruit in the not-so-distant future. The history of the Solidarity movement in Poland during the 1980s may be a harbinger of how things will play out in Iran.  Solidarity emerged in the early part of that decade but was initially supressed by the Soviet-backed communist government; however, just a few years later Solidarity managed to oust the authoritarians and establish a democratic political system.  Perhaps in the next 5-10 years the clerics in Iran will suffer the same fate as the communists in Eastern Europe.

Leaving Town

June 16, 2009

I will be out of town the rest of the week.  I will resume blogging on Monday.

The Economics of Nuclear Energy

June 15, 2009

Global demand for energy is skyrocketing. This is largely due to the fact that countries such as China, India and Russia are developing rapidly and consequently need much more energy to sustain their economies. Meanwhile, developed nations in North America, Europe and Asia continue to consume large amounts of natural resources. This increase in consumption has led to an increase in demand for nuclear power.

International Atomic Energy Agency official Hans-Holger Rogner said “The IAEA is talking with 50-60 countries about the construction of nuclear power plants. There were only half as many just four years ago. That’s a sign of where the journey is headed.”

The Nuclear Energy Agency predicts that global nuclear power capacity will increase 66 percent by 2030 and could increase 375 percent by the middle of the century. Last year construction began on 10 new reactors, the highest number since the Chernobyl incident. In 2008, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission received 13 new plant license applications for 19 reactors. The British intend to build 11 additional nuclear power plants. Russia plans on constructing 26, almost doubling its current total of 31.

The rising costs of other sources of energy such as oil have made investing in nuclear power more economically viable. Oil prices reached an all-time high in 2008 and could go far beyond that in the future. If that happens, nuclear energy will be a cheaper alternative for power generation and profitable for those who own the plants as well as those who sell nuclear reactors and nuclear materials. Manufacturers like Areva and Westinghouse are already expanding into new markets such as China and India and entering into joint venture projects with other companies in traditional markets like the US and UK.

Developments in the automobile industry could affect the future of nuclear power. The increasing feasibility and popularity of electric vehicles may promote the use of nuclear energy because their batteries must be charged, a task that nuclear power could perform. Some believe that as battery costs come down electric cars will be much more efficient than gas-powered ones and sales of the former will increase dramatically.

Speaking about new electric vehicles, Bill Ford, Chairman of Ford Motor Co., said “We haven’t had a lot of revolutions, but boy are we now.”

PG&E CEO Peter Darbee claims that “The smart [electrical] grid will be the key enabling technology for the electric cars.”

David Crane, CEO of NRG Energy, said “The electric car is our savior.”

Another key aspect of the nuclear sector is that it is widely seen as a source of employment and economic stimulus. The Obama administration and Democrats in Congress claim that investing in nuclear energy and other “green” forms of energy will create 5 million new jobs. NRC officials affirmed that more people will need to be recruited and trained as the nuclear industry expands. Some analysts believe that the installation of Westinghouse’s new AP1000 reactors in the UK could contribute $46 billion to that nation’s economy.

Nuclear energy could also prevent stagflation. Angel Gurria, secretary-general of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, observed that access to affordable energy is critical for a sustainable global economy and that nuclear energy has the potential to meet a significant part of future demand while reducing tensions on hydrocarbon markets.

There is bipartisan support in Congress for advancing nuclear power. In May, the Senate approved $50 billion for an Energy Department program to provide loan guarantees for alternative energy projects.

While introducing a climate bill that includes efforts to promote nuclear energy, Democratic Representative Edward Markey said “The time for delay, denial and inaction has come to an end.”

Democratic Representative James Clyburn said “I have been unabashed in my support for nuclear energy.”

Republican Senator Richard Shelby said “We ought to go totally nuclear.”

Republican Senator John McCain said that nuclear power is “vital” for US energy needs.

However, Democrats and Republicans disagree about whether to promote the use of renewable energy by restricting carbon emissions via government mandates, carbon taxes or cap-and-trade programs. Democrats in Congress generally favor regulatory measures such as implementing an international cap-and-trade system, but most Republicans oppose regulation because they claim it will be too costly to industry.

Terrorist Havens in Somalia and Yemen

June 12, 2009

According to American officials, dozens of Al Qaeda operatives and some of the group’s leaders are leaving Pakistan and moving to Somalia and Yemen.  Members of the Obama administration, the military and the intelligence community have credited the increased level of drone attacks against Al Qaeda bases in the tribal areas of Pakistan as the reason for the exodus.

Although the displacement of some terrorists from Pakistan, a politically fragile country with nuclear weapons, is a positive development, the militants relocation to the Horn of Africa is troubling.  Somalia and Yemen are failed states and Al Qaeda could easily find safe haven there from whence they can plan and launch attacks against Americans and other civilians.  Al Qaeda militants in all three nations are reportedly communicating with one another electronically, which could facilitate terrorist operations but also enable American forces to more easily locate the plotters.

The terrorist threat in Somalia and Yemen is a matter of grave concern.  Although a major US troop deployment to either country to combat the militants is infeasible given the ongoing military commitments in Afghanistan and Iraq, the American military could start launching airstrikes against Al Qaeda bases in those countries and send special operations personnel to train local security forces and carry out ground attacks.  Given the weakness of the governments in the Horn of Africa, it will be difficult to root out Al Qaeda from that area but eliminating some of the fighters would at least be a partial victory.

The increased presence of international terrorists in Somalia and Yemen highlights the need to prevent countries from becoming failed states and help strengthen those that already fall into that category.  Such a task will not be easy, and problems of corruption, internal conflicts and a lack of economic resources could make it almost impossible in some nations without a major international effort that would be politically untenable.  But preventing nuclear states like Pakistan and other places of major strategic interest from descending into chaos is imperative and should remain a major tenet of US foreign policy.