Now Is The Time For Serious Diplomacy With Iran

The recent National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran's nuclear program offers a unique opportunity to change a bellicose course of action with that country. Rather than stressing confrontation, now is the time to engage on a serious diplomatic effort that could lead to lasting peace with that Iran.

According to the NIE, Tehran had halted its nuclear weapons program in fall 2003. And the NIE adds, "We can assess with moderate confidence Tehran has not restarted its nuclear weapons program as of mid-2007." Given these findings, is there any reason for Iran to continue its uranium enrichment activities? Perhaps there is, particularly if one considers the possibility that Iran has much less oil reserves than many believe it has.

Roger Stern, a researcher from Johns Hopkins University, in an article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences estimated that Iran's oil exports may be declining to zero by 2014-2015. According to Stern, this may be due to several factors such as hostility to foreign investment, energy subsidies and inefficiencies of its state-planned economy.

Presently, Iran is producing 3.7 million barrels of oil a day. That is 300,000 barrels below the quota set for Iran by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, representing a loss of about $5.5 billion a year, according to Stern. He also states that, because Iran's government relies on oil exports proceeds for most revenue, if exports decline the government could become politically vulnerable.

The Iranian government is now trying to correct this situation through energy agreements with several countries. In 2003, three Japanese companies bought a 20% stake in the development of the Soroush-Nowruz offshore field in the Persian Gulf. Iran has also invited China Petrochemical Corp (Sinopec) to conclude an agreement initiated in 2004 for development of Iran's Yadavaran oil field. And India is looking with considerable interest to Iran's potential to satisfy its growing energy need.

This picture is made even more complex by recent U.N. sanctions against the Iranian government. The sanctions, rather than deter the government in their search for nuclear power, have made the Iranians adamant in their present course of action. Except for Russia and China, with whom they have important energy agreements, they feel isolated in the international scene.

This is happening at a time of increasing economic hardship and unemployment for many Iranians, problems that Ahmadinejad is probably trying to mask with his confrontational approach. In this context, it is possible that sanctions will deter further foreign investments in the country and thus increase the economic concerns of the majority of Iranians.

Roger Stern's predictions of substantial declines in Iran's oil exporting capacity are supported by estimates by former National Iranian Oil Company officials that indicate that oil exports could go down to zero in the next 12 to 19 years. If these predictions are true, they will give credence to the Iranian government claim of the need for nuclear power for peaceful purposes.

In these conditions, rather than increasing tensions with the Iranian regime, it is wiser to insist on Iran's accepting further controls on its nuclear production activities, and engage the Iranian government in diplomacy and a dialogue that Iran desperately wants and needs.

If an accommodation could be reached with Pakistan, which has spread nuclear technology to other countries, and if India could be provided with advanced nuclear technology despite its explosive relationship with Pakistan, Iran could also be contained in its pursuit of nuclear power, which should be transparent and under control of the United Nations atomic agency.

The consequences of an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities which has been advocated by many are too hazardous to even contemplate seriously. Because of its strategic position in the region, an Iranian counterattack could wreak havoc in the countries in the region and provoke worldwide instability. Never has diplomacy been more needed in that region.

CAf(c)sar Chelala, a co-winner of an Overseas Press Club of America award for an article on human rights, is the foreign correspondent for Middle East Times International (Australia).

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