For Iran, energy woes justify nuclear push

Many Iranians see the Nuclear Suppliers Group's Saturday decision that could permit nuclear trade with India as a double standard.

Morteza Nikoubazl/Reuters/Newscom
Lights out: During one of many power outages that hit Iran this summer, a woman held a rechargeable lamp at her Tehran home.

On a scorching day in Tehran the power goes out, trapping a maid in a hotel elevator – again. With a routine air, the front desk clerk grabs a wrench and starts for the stairs.

From generators on sidewalks to refrigerators wrecked by power surges, Iranians are in the midst of an energy crunch that outside experts and Iranian officials say can be solved over the long term only by nuclear power. But suspicion in the West that Iran wants nuclear weapons along with power has prompted an array of United Nations and US sanctions.

For many in Iran, the decision last Saturday that promises to open the door to nuclear trade for India is a double standard. And the decision by the Nuclear Suppliers Group to end the pariah status of India – which tested a bomb in 1974, never signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) nor allowed outside inspection – could reinforce Tehran's refusal to stop uranium enrichment and even encourage a bid for the bomb.

"It tells the extremists … you have to do two things: 'First make a bomb. And then be friends with the Americans, and then you will be a nuclear power with the right to buy whatever you want,' " says Meir Javedanfar, coauthor of "The Nuclear Sphinx of Tehran" who is based in Israel.

The next time politicians across the political spectrum speak to Iran's supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Sayed Ali Khamenei, "about the merits of suspension versus the merits of going forward, [those] who want to go forward are going to use this [India] example to back their case," says Mr. Javedanfar.

Such politics aside, "Iran's requirement for nuclear energy is justified," says Javedanfar. "It is very important for Iran to find other sources of energy, especially nonoil and nongas."

Iran has some of the largest oil and gas reserves in the world. But rising electricity consumption, huge subsidies, waste, and a drought have led to power shutdowns for two to four hours per day at peak hours.

Energy officials say consumption has soared 8 to 10 percent a year for the past 15 years and that reserve capacity is low. They calculate a 37,000-megawatt need this year, but with shortfalls of 2,000 or 3,000 megawatts in the worst periods.

The Russian-built nuclear reactor at Bushehr is to produce 1,000 megawatts, but has experienced chronic delays and may not be on-line by year's end.

"The past couple of summers we have been right on the edge," says Mohammad Ahmadian, the British-educated deputy minister of energy for 11 years in Iran who now advises the minister. Gas turbine and even some coal plants are due to be built in coming years.

In August, Iran's Atomic Energy Organization issued contracts to six local companies to find sites for new atomic plants. Officials have spoken of plans for 19 more 1,000-megawatt plants.

"We have a serious need of nuclear power," says Mr. Ahmadian. He adds that a matrix developed by the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency, which includes all of a country's energy variables, shows that Iran will need "a considerable number" of nuclear power plants in the future.

"Because of the need and the benefits of nuclear energy we are still following this. We will reach it," he says.

But any nuclear solution is far in the future. An incentives package offered to Iran by the US, Russia, China, France, England, and Germany would provide Iran with civilian nuclear technology if it suspends nuclear enrichment. Iranian officials have vowed never to give up enrichment, however, and point out that Europe never fulfilled similar promises during a previous suspension.

"It's clear Iran suspended for three years and got nothing, and now they see that India gets the technology," says a Western diplomat in Tehran. So Iranians ask, " 'Why are we the only ones who can't do it?' "

With the energy crunch, Iran often appears to have gone backward: Last winter gas shortages and subzero temperatures caused a national outcry; this summer the power outages meant that generators lined the sidewalks as they do more commonly in Afghanistan and Iraq.

"If we can have nuclear technology which is actually safe and cost-effective, it makes sense, simply because of sustainability," says an analyst in Tehran. "Right now, it is excruciatingly expensive what they are doing … and it [will be] for a long time to come."

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