“Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that 'my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.'” — Isaac Asimov
MICHELLE MOGHTADER / REUTERS Wind turbines in Iran’s Gilan Province, August 2013.
After years of exclusion from the global financial system, Iran is pushing foreign firms to invest in its massive oil and gas holdings. But there’s another part of Iran’s energy economy that’s opening up: its renewables sector.
Iran has good reasons to develop its hydroelectric, solar, and wind resources—from popular concerns about air pollution to fluctuating oil prices—and since the completion of the nuclear deal in 2015, it has made some progress in doing so. The trouble is that there are also a number of serious barriers to further growth. Foreign companies, worried about the threat of sanctions, are still reluctant to do business in Iran, and problems in Iran’s electricity market are stifling new projects. Only by addressing those problems can Iran grow its green economy.
Iran doesn’t seem like an obvious candidate for green energy investment: the country has the second-largest reserves of natural gas in the world and is a major oil producer, and far more of its domestic power generation comes from fossil fuels than from renewable resources. In 2014, the most recent year for which data from the International Energy Agency are available, natural gas accounted for over 195,000 gigawatt-hours of Iran’s power generation, whereas hydroelectric, nuclear, and wind plants produced fewer than 19,000 gigawatt-hours. (Although Iran’s solar photovoltaic sector has recently attracted some foreign investment, in 2014, it was nearly nonexistent.)
As Iran gets ready to hold its first major elections since the historic nuclear deal reached with world powers last year, the political landscape has undergone an unprecedented shakeup as reformists, moderates and even conservatives—who usually compete against each other—have essentially united to confront the hardliners who have controlled Iran’s internal politics for most of the last decade.
The elections on Feb. 26—which are for both the parliament as well as the Experts Assembly, the body tasked with choosing Iran’s next supreme leader—are historic, in large part because they are the first polls to take place since the implementation of the Iran nuclear deal. With that agreement and the lifting of sanctions, Iran is poised to reenter the international community—and every political faction wants to have a say in what path the Islamic Republic will take.
But what’s even more notable is that, for the first time, a wide range of political groups have united in the purpose of preventing hardliners from getting elected—even if they have to learn to live with other factions that until now they have always opposed. “For example when you look at the reformist list of candidates you can see it is a list out of necessity, not choice, the list has no common identity,” says Abdullah Ganji, managing director of Javan Daily and a political analyst. “On one hand you have Mohammadreza Aref, a reformist who believes that the parliament’s first duty is to pursue the termination of the house arrest [of Green Movement Leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi]. In the other hand you have Kazem Jalali, a principalist who has officially called for the death sentence for these two, they have welcomed anyone who opposes the Paydari Front”—the main and foremost hardline political faction in Iran’s present-day political spectrum.
Saudi Arabia is back, knocking on Pakistan’s door. Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir and King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud’s son and deputy crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman, arrived separately in the early days of the new year to persuade Islamabad to join hands with Riyadh in confronting regional security threats. That is, the Saudis want Pakistan’s support against Iran.
From Riyadh’s perspective, Pakistan, which is home to the world’s second-largest Muslim population and is the only nuclear-armed Islamic country, provides much needed critical mass. The Saudis wish to see Islamabad publicly commit itself to the 34-nation, Saudi-led antiterrorism coalition that Riyadh launched in December. But Riyadh would settle for Pakistan issuing stronger and more frequent diplomatic gestures of support for Saudi regional policies. Such support has been hard to win, however. In April 2015, when Riyadh sought Islamabad’s military assistance in its newly launched war in Yemen, Saudi officials went home empty-handed.
This time, Jubeir and bin Salman heard two different messages from Islamabad. The head of the Pakistani military, General Raheel Sharif, vowed a “strong response” to any threat to Saudi security. The other message was from Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. His emphasis was on a potential role for Pakistan as a mediator between Saudi Arabia and Iran, sensibly sidestepping the burden of having to pick sides.
History reveals that it is Sharif’s promise of neutrality—bordering on opportunism—that most likely will shape Islamabad’s attitude toward this latest Iranian-Saudi spat. Since its independence in 1947, Pakistan has often found itself in a position to choose between the Iranians and the Arabs. More often than not, Islamabad has managed to wriggle free. In fact, it has repeatedly benefited from being in that position in the first place.
What history also shows is that it is cold geopolitical calculations—not sectarian sympathies—that will fashion Islamabad’s approach. Today, Pakistan has much closer ties to the Arab countries of the Persian Gulf and particularly Saudi Arabia, home to millions of Pakistani expatriates and a source of subsidized oil and other financial incentives. But Iran is a large immediate neighbor and a nuclear-threshold state looking to emerge from years of international isolation. These factors compel Islamabad to give Iran another look as it weighs Saudi requests for support.
The mainstream narrative holds that the Iranian-Pakistani relationship ran aground after the 1979 Iranian revolution, which brought to power a revolutionary Shiite Islamist regime in Tehran and gave Sunni Arab nations an opening to court Islamabad. As Time magazine put it last week, Iranian-Pakistani relations have been “fraught since . . . Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini came to power and Tehran drifted closer to New Delhi.” In fact, it was another Iranian leader, the secular and pro-Western Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, shah of Iran, who a decade before Khomeini came to power had already set in motion the forces that turned Tehran and Islamabad from allies to rivals.
The nuclear deal that the United States and five other great powers signed with Iran in July 2015 is the final product of a decadelong effort at arms control. That effort included sanctions in an attempt to impede Iran’s quest for a nuclear weapons capability. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, ranks as one of the most deficient arms control agreements in history. But U.S. President Barack Obama has pledged to spend the remainder of his tenure fending off congressional pressures to adjust its terms.
An even larger issue, however, is Washington’s lack of a comprehensive Iran policy. For decades, the United States has refused to deal with the crucial subject that makes the nuclear issue so important, which is the nature of the Iranian regime. Any Iran policy worthy of the name must start from the fact that the Islamic Republic is not a conventional state making pragmatic estimates of its national interests but a revolutionary regime.
U.S. policymakers since the days of President Ronald Reagan have failed to understand that there can be no rapprochement between the two governments, because, as Iran’s leaders understand, that would undo the very existence of the Iranian regime. They have overlooked the fact that Iran is an exceptionally dangerous state—to its neighbors, to close U.S. allies such as Israel, and to the broader stability of the Middle East.
Given the serious challenge Iran poses to U.S. interests, Washington should seek to roll back the country’s growing influence in the Middle East while systematically eroding the foundations of its power. In the long term, the Islamic Republic will join the Soviet Union and other ideological relics of the twentieth century in eventual collapse. Until then, however, there can be no real peace between Washington and Tehran.
A RAW DEAL
No sensible Iran policy can coexist with the JCPOA as it stands today. The agreement recognizes Iran’s right to enrich uranium and eventually industrialize that capacity. It concedes that Iran can construct an elaborate nuclear infrastructure for research and development. It establishes a verification system that gives Iran far too much advance notice of inspections and does not meaningfully limit the development of ballistic missiles, a pillar of any nuclear weapons program. It does not provide adequate access to the facilities and scientists involved in Iran’s past work on nuclear weapons, thus denying inspectors the knowledge they need to assess the scope of Iran’s current program. And after 15 years, once the agreement expires, Iran will be free to build as many nuclear installations as it wants, accumulate as much enriched uranium as it wishes, and enrich that uranium to whatever level it deems necessary. In essence, the JCPOA establishes Iran as a threshold nuclear power today and paves the way for an eventual Iranian bomb.