It seems incredible that almost a decade separates the date of this blog post and the beginning of the Iraq War, almost indisputably the most controversial military operation in the first decade or so of the twentieth century; bewilderingly and despite its recency, there is still much about it that is uncertain. There are profound disagreements over the precise reasons that the United States – ultimately joined, though mostly symbolically, from forces spanning nearly forty countries – pursued this conflict, and it remains to be seen whether the incredible fiscal drain placed on America’s resources, conservatively estimated at US$3trn by Nobel Laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz, will prove to be a burden of decisive proportions.
But one thing is becoming ever-clearer: the geopolitical effect of military engagement in Iraq has been to turn one of the largest oil producers in the world into a state with a symbiotic relationship with Iran. In fact, so strong is the bond between Iraq and Iran – neighbours locked in a one million casualty conflict of their own for much of the 1980s – that the two countries are now forming an alliance with OPEC to counter Saudi Arabian influence within that organisation. This is particularly significant because despite Saudi Arabia’s dire international image, it is perceived as a reliable partner when it comes to pumping sweet, black crude out of the ground and supplying it to world markets with few questions asked; Iran, much like Venezuela, is keener to utilise the political potential of OPEC towards its own geostrategic goals.
Naturally, this feeds back into the United States’ present economic predicament, which is characterised by sensational levels of wealth destruction and, in the form of astonishing quantities of monetary printing, desperation; the last thing that the energy-intensive American economy needs is for the price of its key production and transportation input to undergo a structural increase in price because of a shift within the dynamics of OPEC. Yet that is precisely what it is being confronted with, the irony being that the status quo of the early 2000s would have precluded such an outcome.
Little thought is usually given to the brand value of countries outside the G20, let alone politically and economically isolated states, but as Mediolana’s chief blogger managed to catch a few minutes of the recent AFC Champions League quarter-final first leg between Suwon Samsung Bluewings of South Korea and Iran’s Zob Ahan, he couldn’t help thinking that the popular international reputation of the country formerly known as Persia is probably at something of a nadir. The Green Revolution had many within Iran proclaiming the country’s model of governance as bankrupt, and the Arab Spring has seen Tehran’s regional influence wane significantly, with the likely ousting of Bashar al-Assad almost certainly resulting in the end of its special relationship with Damascus.
However, Brand Iran may soon have a new problem of entirely different dimensions to contend with. On 12th September 2011, the official inauguration of the Middle East’s first civilian nuclear power plant was held at the Gulf port city of Bushehr. The Bushehr 1 reactor – the first of three planned by Iran – is projected to supply around 2% of the nation’s electricity needs. Ostensibly this could be a promising development, but on reflection we at Mediolana conclude that the potential costs could well outweigh the benefits in quite spectacular fashion:
1. Location, Location, Location. Incredibly, Bushehr 1 has been sited at a junction of no less than three tectonic plates – the African, Arabian and Eurasian – and nothing less than mayhem could follow if an earthquake strikes. As Dina Esfandiary of the International Institute of Strategic Studies has noted, Neighbouring Saudi Arabia, UAE and Kuwait would be directly affected by any accident at the reactor; the Gulf’s water supplies could also be endangered, a disaster in a region which is already reliant on the smooth functioning of desalination plants for potable water.
2. Nuclear Remix. The nuclear facility at Bushehr was originally commissioned over thirty-five years ago by Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, the self-styled ‘King of Kings’ who was deposed by the 1979 Iranian Revolution. German companies – including Siemens AG and AEG – began construction work in 1975, but the revolution, the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) and a subsequent agreement between Iranian government and Russia’s Ministry for Atomic Energy means that Bushehr 1 is a curious amalgam of Russian and German designs. It is unclear whether this combination is a stable one; a cooling pump shattered during the initialisation phase in March, forcing a shutdown; Mark Hibbs, a senior associate in the Nuclear Policy Programme of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, is perhaps not alone in questioning why a three-decade-old emergency coolant system has been deployed at the plant.
3. Timing. In a post-Fukushima world where states such as Germany and Switzerland have kissed nuclear power goodbye – with no little irony, Siemens AG announced its withdrawal from the nuclear power industry earlier today – it seems surprising that Iran, a Middle Eastern country which enjoys abundant sunshine, is choosing to proceed along the tightrope of nuclear power, let alone in a manner which could permanently discredit this form of energy generation throughout the region – and stain Brand Iran yet further.