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Iran: Questioning Tehran's 'Urgent Need' For Nuclear Energy

A worker on an Iranian oil platform. (Fars) November 29, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Over the past week, senior Iranian officials have repeated the claim that Iran, despite its massive reserves of natural gas and oil, desperately needs to develop nuclear energy. It’s an argument that some independent energy analysts find bewildering.

Some of the bluntest Iranian assertions about atomic energy have come former top nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani and Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki. Both men have played major diplomatic roles in deflecting global criticism of Iran's nuclear program, which has driven Tehran into dispute with the UN Security Council, with the United States convinced that Iran’s nuclear bid is secretly aimed at developing weapons.

The fresh Iranian rhetoric comes in the wake of a mixed report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on Iran's nuclear activities, and appears to signal a broad push to capitalize on any momentum that the November 22 report might have generated in favor of Tehran.

Mottaki, in particular, warned "Iran's energy demand will exceed its supply" in the near future and the country "urgently needs to produce 20,000 megawatts of nuclear power by 2020."

No Energy Deficit

But some Western energy experts -- particularly those wary of the proliferation threat -- are skeptical of any pressing Iranian need to pursue nuclear power to replace fossil fuels. Shannon Kile, a nonproliferation specialist at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, said that it's unlikely Iran will face an energy deficit anytime soon.

"Most Western experts do not think that there is a compelling, a persuasive economic rush now for Iran to be pursuing nuclear power,” Kile told RFE/RL. “And I think there is a consensus view among Western experts that it doesn't make economic sense for Iran to produce nuclear energy, and that oil and gas reserves are going to last longer than Iranians say."

Iranian officials argue that energy consumption has increased rapidly and that oil and gas supplies will run out one day. Iran's official figures suggest that oil consumption since the early 1990s risen an average of 8 percent a year. Total energy consumption has reportedly grown more than 200 percent in the past three decades.

But Iran sits on 9 percent of the world's proven oil reserves and possesses the world's second-largest natural gas deposits. And proven reserves usually represent a conservative estimate of actual retrievable levels, analysts note.

Still, London-based nuclear-energy specialist and consultant Mehdi Askariyeh says that Iranian energy consumption looks set to increase, particularly since its population has more than doubled since the 1979 Islamic revolution. "Iran predicts that in the next 20 years it will have a population of more than 100 million," Askariyeh told RFE/RL’s Radio Farda.

Skeptics, however, warn that Iran consistently exaggerates its energy needs. They say that per capita consumption is no higher than other oil- and gas-producing countries. International Energy Data and Analysis claims the world's largest oil producer, Saudi Arabia, has a similar level of total energy consumption to Iran.

Alternative Sources

Critics of an expanding Iranian nuclear program also say that increasing industrial output, producing energy-efficient cars, and creating energy-efficient industries is probably cheaper and easier than investing in a nuclear industry.

Kile says that "by a variety of conservation measures and alternative energy sources -- other than nuclear power -- Iran can easily make up for whatever is going to be [consumed or exported] over the years."

Iranian sources note that fossil fuels have caused serious environmental degradation and health problems related to pollution in the air, water, and soil.

Moreover, questions about the storage of nuclear waste and incidents like the Chornobyl disaster in 1986 also contribute to concerns in Iran about its nuclear program. Chornobyl in Ukraine was a largely Russian-built facility, and Russian technology is a keystone of Iran's nearly completed Bushehr nuclear power plant in the south.

Still, Iranian officials use the nuclear drive as a rallying cry, and say they are determined to produce nuclear-generated electricity. Those same officials have consistently rejected claims that their nuclear program has a weapons component.

Iran has already been targeted by two rounds of UN Security Council sanctions as part of the international community's effort to stop it from enriching uranium.

Askariyeh says Iran's desire for diversification and alternative energy sources are as legitimate as any country's. But he argues that the need is not pressing enough to make the hasty pursuit of nuclear technology -- and the resulting international isolation -- a wise option for Tehran.

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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the region’s ongoing struggle with the coronavirus pandemic and its economic impact. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.