By Mohammad Sahimi, Pirouz Mojtahed-Zadeh and Kaveh L. Afrasiabi One often hears that Iran's real purpose for pursuing nuclear technology is to develop nuclear weapons and that with its huge oil and gas reserves it has no real need for nuclear energy. Even those who should know better claim that Iran, both now and in the foreseeable future, can easily meet its energy needs without recourse to nuclear sources. We would like to demonstrate that these claims lack substance. First, it is important to bear in mind that Iran's nuclear history pre-dates the current Islamic government. It originated in the mid-1970's, when the Shah unveiled plans to purchase several nuclear reactors from Germany, France and the United States to generate electricity. With Washington's blessing, the Shah's government awarded a contract to a subsidiary of the German company Siemens to construct two 1,200-megawatt reactors at Bushehr. At the time, the United States encouraged Iran to expand its non-oil energy base. A study by the Stanford Research Institute concluded that Iran would need, by the year 1990, an electrical capacity of about 20,000 megawatts. The first cadre of Iran's nuclear engineers was trained at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In recognition of Iran's energy needs, the final draft of the U.S.-Iran Nuclear Energy Agreement was signed in July 1978 — several months before the Islamic revolution. The agreement stipulated, among other things, American export of nuclear technology and material and help in searching for uranium deposits. Second, Iran's present electrical requirements are far larger than had been predicted. With an annual growth of 6 percent to 8 percent in demand for electricity and a population estimated to reach 100 million by 2025, Iran cannot possibly rely exclusively on oil and gas. The aging oil industry, denied substantial foreign investment largely because of American sanctions, has not been able even to reach the pre-revolution production level of 5.5 million barrels per day. Of Iran's 60 major oil fields, 57 need major repairs, upgrading and repressurizing, which would require $40 billion over 15 years. Iran's current production level of 3.5 million barrels per day is increasingly geared toward domestic consumption, which has grown by more than 280 percent since 1979. If this trend continues, Iran will become a net oil importer by 2010, a catastrophe for a country that relies on oil for 80 percent of its foreign currency and 45 percent of its annual budget. Third, opponents of Iran's nuclear program often argue that Iran should opt for the more economically efficient electricity from natural gas-fired power plants. Such arguments are also not valid. A recent study by two MIT professors indicated that the cost of producing electricity from gas (and oil) is comparable with what it costs to generate it using nuclear reactors — not to mention the adverse effects of carbon emissions or the need to preserve Iran's gas reserves to position Iran in 20 or 30 years as one of the main suppliers of gas to Europe and Asia. Fourth, why should Iran deplete its nonrenewable oil and gas sources when it can, much like the energy-rich United States and Russia, resort to renewable nuclear energy? Nuclear reactors have their problems, and they will not resolve Iran's chronic shortage of electricity. Yet they represent an important first step in diversifying Iran's sources for energy. Sadly, with their fear of an Iranian bomb, the United States and some of its Western allies have failed to acknowledge Iran's legitimate quest for nuclear energy, which is important for a meaningful dialogue with Tehran to deter it from expanding its nuclear technology to bomb making. A small corrective step has been taken by France, England and Germany, whose foreign ministers recently dispatched a letter to Iran promising technical cooperation with Iran's civil nuclear program in exchange for full nuclear transparency. This is wiser than the coercive approach by the United States, which seeks to dispossess Iran of nuclear know-how altogether, and is blind to Iran's energy and security worries. * Mohammad Sahimi is a professor of chemical and petroleum engineering at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Pirouz Mojtahed-Zadeh is professor of political geography and geopolitics at the Tarbiat Modares university of Tehran and chairman of the Urosevic Research Foundation in London. Kaveh L. Afrasiabi is professor of Middle East politics at Chapman University.