As a currently serving military officer, I am not allowed to campaign for a particular candidate or political party. I am part of an organization that is subordinate to the authority of civilian leaders and required to follow their orders. I am also required to be respectful of those in my chain of command.
I am, however, allowed to express my opinions as a private citizen and feel a moral obligation to weigh in on the issue of saber rattling to attempt to force a sovereign nation to give up a potentially lucrative commercial enterprise and a potential boon to its ability to support the health and safety of its 70 million people.
During one of my previous assignments, I taught ethics to second year students at the US Naval Academy. During that same period of time, I participated in a seminar course on national policy and strategy that included several units on international law. I am no lawyer or ethicist, but I cannot square what I learned during that period of teaching and study with the actions that certain leaders in the US government seem to be threatening.
International law prohibits acts of aggression; signed treaties allow nations the right to develop nuclear energy programs; we have a moral obligation to minimize any dangers to non combatants; and many of the countries that are asserting that Iran does not need to enrich uranium to enable a civilian nuclear power industry have one or more enrichment plants operating with more under construction in order to support their own industry and export markets. Nearly all of the nuclear power plants operating in the world today require at least some enriched fuel and all available modern plants envision its use.
It almost seems that the establishment is ganging up on Iran because its leaders have determined that they want the same thing that many of us desire – energy independence. They have repeatedly stated that their nuclear programs are aimed at peaceful uses and our own intelligence sources have agreed that there does not seem to be any recent weapons related activity.
Some officials have made the rather absurd statement that Iran does not need nuclear power because it has “plenty” of oil and natural gas, yet burning those fuels in power plants is a wasteful activity given the world’s thirst for both fuels. Slowing domestic consumption would give Iran the ability to increase its exports and its income; each large nuclear plant could allow the export of several million tons of oil each year, providing hundreds of millions of dollars of income. (See, for example: Iran actually is short of oil)
It is clear to most careful observers that the world’s supply of oil and gas is not likely to be able to meet demands for more than a few more decades. We are already pressing against some very real limits in our ability to increase the rate of production. The end of the petroleum era might seem far off to some, but to the leaders of a country that thinks of history in terms of thousands of years, the thought of dramatic shifts in wealth in just a few decades should encourage immediate action. We should give Iranian engineering and science leaders the benefit of the doubt in the face of the very real need for reliable energy alternatives. I think that they are doing exactly what they say they are doing, creating an alternative energy source.
Some people have suggested that Iran could build nuclear plants if it only agreed to depend on others to supply its nuclear fuel. If I was an Iranian, I would be deeply suspicious of that offer and look closely at the contracts to identify all of the costs and the strings attached. Quite frankly, nuclear fuel suppliers, most especially those from my own country, have a history of including onerous conditions on the use of the fuel. They have also been known to use continuing supplies as a club to force completely unrelated actions. (For an excellent history of the nuclear fuel cycle in commerce, I recommend Bertrand Goldschmidt’s The Atomic Complex: A Worldwide History of Nuclear Energy published by the American Nuclear Society, La Grange Park, IL 1982. The fuel cycle discussion resides mainly on pages 361-381.)
From a distance, it looks to me like the “international community” of pundits, diplomats, financiers, politicians, and industrialists are worried about the implications of an independently minded country gaining market power over the fossil fuel industry. With a domestic nuclear capability that includes a complete fuel cycle, Iran, a country with a long history of math and science excellence, could take over Saudi Arabia’s role as the swing producer in the oil market. They would have the ability to add or subtract enough capacity on demand to make a significant difference in the world price of a very important commodity.
That disruptive idea has got to be scary to those who have been wielding power over energy supplies with varying degrees of success for many decades, but it is not a good excuse for a war. A war with Iran would cause a much more serious disruption in the lives of all of the rest of us. In our current world situation, I cannot imagine what would happen if we suddenly lost access to the 3-4 million barrels of oil per day coming out of Iran. I would not even want to think about what would happen if some of the submarines, fast boats and missiles owned by Iran near the Straits of Hormuz succeeded in sinking a few tankers in response to an attack on its home territory. (See, for example: Iran defiant on right to nuclear power)
Military power has its limits; this is one of those times when attempting to impose it in an inappropriate time would be exceedingly self-defeating.
Update: (Posted at 1647 on July 6, 2008) If you you think that the world has a problem with energy prices now, think about what might happen if any of the scenario described by the NationalPost.com article titled Mideast collision course takes place! That story really makes me wish that I could draw an editorial cartoon. I would picture someone with a large pistol trying to shoot a mosquito off of his foot. Use your imagination to figure out what kind of hat that person would be wearing.