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The Climate Change Case for US-Iranian Engagement

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Original published by Middle East Institute Washington D.C.

Naughten, B., 2009, ‘The Climate Change Case for US-Iranian Engagement’, pp. 67-72, in Viewpoints Special Edition, The 1979 “Oil Shock:” Legacy, Lessons, and Lasting Reverberations, The Middle East Institute, Washington, DC.

The Climate Change Case for US-Iranian Engagement[1]


Barry Naughten

That the US under the Obama Administration, 55 years after Mossadeq and 30 years after the Shah’s mass-based overthrow, is still funding covert “regime change” projects in Iran is highly relevant to current attitudes on both sides. But global context of crisis has moved on.

China’s contribution to mitigating greenhouse gas emissions is at the forefront of issues facing the international community in the run-up to the all-important UNFCCC Conference of the Parties scheduled for December 2009 in Copenhagen.

If the “supply security” of gas imported from Iran, and West Asia generally, was assured, it could play a major role in cost-effectively reducing future emissions of CO2 from the otherwise coal-dominated electricity systems of China and other South and East Asian economies. This would be a major contribution to averting “dangerous” climate change.

Yet the United States has been doing what it can to block Iran’s efforts to expand its pipelined exports of natural gas to these countries. This must change, but a necessary precursor is serious US engagement with Iran, despite mutual suspicions and external pressures. However, this will not occur in the absence of significant change in US Grand Strategic thinking more generally.

US Grand Strategy and Global Systemic Crises: The Case of Climate Change

In guiding its policies, especially foreign policies, in a changing and uncertain world, the United States has what can be framed as a bipolar choice of Grand Strategies.[2]

The first (status quo) option is to maintain the Global Hegemonist or unipolist paradigm. Suppressing the hubristic and unilateralist extremes of the Bush Doctrine, the prime focus of this approach remains that of seeking to prolong US global dominance through the 21st century. This project is still based ultimately on US military supremacy, but replacing Bush Doctrine’s unilateralism with US leadership asserted within a bloc of allies such as an expanded NATO.[3] As pointed out by Kupchan, this is a version of “West versus the Rest.”

The alternative, referred to here as Cooperative Realism[4] has a characteristic dual focus: 1) rational US adaptation in an era of increasing global multipolarity evidenced by rising powers such as China, India, the EU, and 2) ensuring that the United States is effectively engaged cooperatively in resolving (or at least managing) a series of interlocking global systems-in-crisis — especially the security system (of which increasing multipolarity is one aspect) as well as the economic, ecological, and energy global systems. Cooperative Realists emphasize the need to engage not only allies but peer competitors, adversaries, etc. whose cooperation, and not always merely compliance, is needed in addressing these systemic crises.

US Engagement with Iran with All Issues on the Table

A prime ongoing test of the Obama administration’s Grand Strategic tendencies will be its willingness and ability to reach a satisfactory engagement with Iran, one that facilitates both states addressing relevant systemic crises.

These include nuclear proliferation,[5] open-ended wars—especially so-called “preventive war” against Iran itself—as well as state terrorism and state-sponsored terrorism in the Middle East. In historical perspective, Iran hardly has sole responsibility for these problems. US initiative and a high order of cooperation will be required,[6] as will overcoming Iranian distrust[7] of US foreign policy intentions accumulated over more than half a century.

The Need to Abate Greenhouse Gas Emissions of “Chindia”—and How

That “dangerous” climate change is potentially a major threat to humanity and human civilization is well documented.[8] A very significant reduction in energy sector CO2 emissions is required, and the Obama Administration, with Democratic Congressional support, is at last providing global leadership instead of sabotaging the multilateral effort.[9] The agreed requirements are that OECD countries must reduce their emissions by 80% or more (compared with 2000 levels) by 2050. However, this would be insufficient without major but relatively lesser contributions from rapidly developing, populous economies such as those of China and India, despite their much lower emissions in per capita terms. Further, domestic political opposition to costs associated with deep cuts in OECD emissions will be reduced if “Chindia” is viewed as sharing the global burden. In particular, China’s especially polluting coal-based electricity capacity is projected to be 70% greater than that of the US by 2030 in an unsustainable business-as-usual scenario. Yet in gas-fired combined cycle gas turbines (CCGTs) a cost-effective “bridging” solution[10] is potentially available.

China’s Potential Market for West Asian Natural Gas: Scope for CO2 Abatement

Secure availability of imported natural gas would enable China to radically reduce growth in its CO2 emissions (Naughten 2007, 2008). First, compared with coal-fired electricity, baseload CCGTs emit less than half the CO2 on a per kWh basis, an advantage to China manifest when CO2 is priced. Second, gas-fired CCGTs have many other advantages including compatibility with intermittent renewable electricity. Vis-à-vis both coal and especially nuclear technologies they have short construction lead-times, modularity and low capital intensity —advantages that will be more obvious with liberalized markets instead of concealed state subsidies. Another major benefit is that gas will reduce China’s urban air pollution.[11]

As to gas supply, 70% of global reserves are contiguously located in West Asia (the former Soviet Union and the Gulf). The major hurdle is about the supply security of any such imported gas via pipeline or as liquefied natural gas (LNG) by tanker, but in the case of Iran it is US foreign policy that prejudices this security.

Iran’s Natural Gas Export Under-performance: West Asian and European Markets

Iran is an accessible potential source for such imported natural gas, given that it holds 16% of global proven reserves. It accounts for 4% of global production, but Iran’s net exports currently are essentially zero. This is serious under-performance for a commodity with major export potential.[12] Domestic factors exist, given market distortions in Iran’s energy sector, and the effects of economic sanctions: for instance, flaring of significant gas, significant consumer subsidies causing domestic over-consumption gas (as well as of oil-based transport fuels. But US opposition is the prime factor, manifested in its opposition to the long-envisaged Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline (IPI).

US-Induced Supply Insecurity for Pipelined Iranian Gas

Leading Global Hegemonist opponents of the IPI project include “oil hawks”[13] such as Luft, Kaplan, and Cohen, Curtis & Graham,[14] for whom anything else is preferable, for example: a war primarily to make safe a gas pipeline from Turkmenistan via Afghanistan to Pakistan and India (TAPI) and US inducements to encourage India to expand its nuclear generating capacity[15] as an alternative to gas. Luft acknowledges consequent sacrifice of other prime global objectives but these are given short shrift. Such global “sacrifices” include welcoming action by separatist groups that will “delay” or “terminate” the project, increased nuclear proliferation risk where the proliferator to be mollified is some state other than Iran — Pakistan[16] as well as India. As to “dangerous” climate change, Luft argues:

Pressuring India to curtail its use of coal for power generation may help reduce carbon emissions but it could force India to shift to cleaner burning natural gas and hence drive it right into the welcoming arms of Iran. This is one of those situations in which environmental and security considerations do not coincide.

Despite Luft’s claim, the problem is not properly specified as one of trading-off “environmental” versus security considerations. (Dangerous climate change is hardly just another “environmental” consideration!) Rather, security considerations are mis-specified if these are understood to mean eternally isolating and demonizing Iran,[17] a position impossible to reconcile with a concept of US national interests that has regard to overriding global interests.

These “oil hawks” view TAPI’s strategic significance as a desirable “crowding out of the IPI. However, if secure and cost-effective supply of natural gas to China and India is deemed high priority as a global interest then the most desirable result may be that both projects materialize with security.[18] This could contribute to the development of reliable markets and reliable supplies, a positive sum game that would also contribute decisively to averting “dangerous” climate change. However, the operative word here is “cost-effective.” Waging “resource wars” at enormous cost in blood and lost opportunities has to be questioned. This applies as much to Kaplan’s “petro-political” argument for the Afghanistan war as to the lives destroyed and $3 trillion cost now associated with the Iraq war itself,[19] a war also supported on what turned out to be highly dubious “petro-political” grounds by these same “oil hawks.”[20]

What Should Happen

Genuine US-Iran engagement could resolve outstanding difficulties and allow this all-important natural gas trade to proceed. Such US foreign policy reversal would complement its domestic energy policy reforms designed to abate the United States’ domestic greenhouse gas emissions. Thus the US would play a necessary dual leadership role in addressing “dangerous” climate change multilaterally.

Barry Naughten, Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies (CAIS), Australian National University (ANU), Canberra,

[1] This paper was published as a book chapter in the on-line book published by The Middle East Institute, Washington, DC. The link below gives access to the whole book

Naughten, B., 2009, ‘The Climate Change Case for US-Iranian Engagement’, pp. 67-72, in Viewpoints Special Edition, The 1979 “Oil Shock:” Legacy, Lessons, and Lasting Reverberations, The Middle East Institute, Washington, DC.

[2] C.A. Kupchan, “Minor League, Major Problems,” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 87, Iss. 6, (2008), pp. 96-110.

[3] See R. Kagan, “Obama’s Iran Realism,”, June, 17, 2009,; and P. Bobbitt, “A Premier League for Democracy?: Exchange of Open Letters between Philip Bobbitt and David Hannay,” Prospect Magazine, December 2008.

[4]  See A. Bacevich, “Present at the Re-Creation: A Neoconservative Moves On,” review of Robert Kagan,The Return of History and the End of Dreams (NewYork: Knopf, 2008), Foreign Affairs, July/August 2008; C. Bell, “The End of the Vasco da Gama Era: the Next Landscape of World Politics,” 1st ed. Lowy Institute Paper; No. 21 (2008); Layne, The Peace of Illusions: American Grand Strategy from 1940 to the Present (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006); A. Lieven, “League of Demagoguery,” The National Interest, Iss. 97 (2008), pp. 79-87.

[5] The double standard applied to Iran’s nuclear aspirations is obvious, bearing in mind the long-standing nuclear status of US-allied states such as Israel, Pakistan, and India, as well as the clandestine and illegal actions taken by all three states in attaining that status.

[6] On cooperation in international relations see E. Jones, “Elusive Power, Essential Leadership,” Survival, Vol. 51, No. 3 (2009), pp. 243-51.

[7] For a more nuanced perception of diverse Iranian attitudes see ICRG, U.S.-Iranian Engagement: The View from Tehran, International Crisis Response Group, Middle East Briefing No. 28, Tehran/Brussels, June 2, 2009, p. 22. For example, conservative and Islamist actors (Khamenei, Ahmadinejad) may be more attracted to US rapprochement than reformist/secular/socialist-aligned actors (Khatami, Moussavi).

[8] N. Stern, The Economics of Climate Change: The Stern Review (Cambridge, UK and New York: CambridgeUniversity Press, 2008).

[9] American Clean Energy and Security Act, 2009. Wikipedia.

[10] Cost-minimizing abatement over the period to 2050 requires that significant abatement begin now with radically lower CO2 technologies being taken up later as old capital is replaced, the price of CO2 rises and advantage is taken of technological progress in processing and saving energy. CCGTs have their most effective role in the medium term pending such developments, hence the term ‘bridging’ technology.

[11] D.G. Victor, “Toward Effective International Cooperation on Climate Change: Numbers, Interests and Institutions,” Global Environmental Politics, Vol. 6, No. 3 (2006), pp. 90-103.

[12] Heavy levels of investment in civil nuclear power over nearly 40 years have still not resulted in a working power reactor, real intentions having more to do with keeping the weapons option open in the (dubious) belief that this potential adds to Iran’s security. See L. Weiss, “Reliable Energy Supply and Non-Proliferation,” The Non-proliferation Review, Vol. 16, No. 2 (2009), pp. 269-84; and T.W. Wood et al., “The Economics of Energy Independence for Iran,” The Nonproliferation Review, Vol. 14, No. 1 (2007), pp. 89-112.

[13] The term is due to R. Bryce, Gusher of Lies: the Dangerous Delusions of Energy Independence (New York: Public Affairs, 2008).

[14] G. Luft, “Iran-Pakistan Pipeline: Iran’s New Economic Lifeline,” Journal of Energy Security (IAGS), June 18, 2009.; R.D. Kaplan, “Center Stage for the Twenty-first Century,” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 88, Iss. 2 (2009), pp. 16-31; and A. Cohen, L. Curtis, and O. Graham, “The Proposed Iran-Pakistan-India Gas Pipeline: An Unacceptable Risk to Regional Security,” Heritage Foundation, Backgrounder #2139, May 30, 2008.

[15] In the case of the US-India nuclear deal initiated by President Bush, O. Meier notes that:

The US government’s plan to lift the nuclear embargo on India runs counter to global efforts against the proliferation of nuclear weapons. See O. Meier, “The US-India Nuclear Deal: The End of Universal Non-Proliferation Efforts?” IPG (2006), pp. 28-43.

[16] Pakistan is still be assisted by the US with respect to matters nuclear, despite the A.Q. Khan scandal. See B. Chellaney, “Military Insiders Threaten Pakistan’s Nuclear Assets,”Japan Times on-line, Thursday, May 14, 2009.; and AndrewCockburn, “The Obama Administration is Helping to Upgrade Pakistan’s Nuclear Weapons, A CounterPunch Exclusive Report, June 24, 2009.

[17] “China is not an enemy of the United States, like Iran, but a legitimate peer competitor, and India is a budding ally” (emphasis added). R. Kaplan, “Center Stage for the Twenty-first Century.”

[18] Supply security and market development can also be enhanced by supplementing pipelined natural gas supplies with LNG tankers.

[19] As estimated by J. Stiglitz and L. Bilmes, The Three Trillion Dollar War: the True Cost of the Iraq Conflict (London, UK: Allen Lane, 2008).

[20] For instance, A. Cohen and O’Driscoll saw in “American Iraq” an opportunity to sell off Iraq’s oil reserves and abolish its national oil company. The desired outcome was rapid expansion in supply, tending to undermine OPEC and its price discipline, and generating enough revenue to pay for the war. See A. Cohen and G. O’Driscoll, The Road to Economic Prosperity for a Post-Saddam Iraq, Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 1633, March 5, 2003, Just the reverse of all this actually resulted. As documented by Stiglitz and Bilmes, see G. Palast, Armed Mad-house (Sydney: Penguin, 2006).


Written by Barry Naughten

August 23, 2012 at 12:06 am

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