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Today, President Obama chose the occasion of Nowruz, the Iranian New Year, to send a conciliatory message to the people and leaders of Iran. A spokesperson for Iranian President Ahmadinejad responded immediately with a positive message.

The stage is set for movement toward rapprochement, but both sides need an appropriate vehicle. Fortunately, we have a perfect candidate: Rapid, collaborative development of solar thermal power in Iran. As Kevin Ummel and I show in our paper Desert Power, the Middle East has enormous potential for solar power development that can achieve cost parity with fossil fuels within a decade. This solar map of Iran shows that more than half the country has enough solar radiation for large-scale production of solar thermal power. Solar thermal facilities in a small portion of the dark-red area could power the whole of Iran indefinitely with a clean, renewable energy source. All things considered, what could better foster US-Iran relations than such a non-nuclear, zero-carbon energy initiative as we move toward the UN climate conference in Copenhagen? 

Both countries have laid the groundwork already. In January, Iran showed its interest by inaugurating its pilot solar thermal plant – a 250 kw facility in Shiraz.

In the United States, President Obama’s stimulus plan and California’s renewable energy mandate have combined to accelerate large-scale development of solar thermal power in California and Nevada. The geographic synergy is considerable because Southern California is home to over 100,000 Iranian-Americans, many of them gifted entrepreneurs who have become quite wealthy. Perhaps the best-known Iranian-American billionaire is Pierre Omidyar, founder of eBay and Nevada resident, who has established the Omidyar Network to promote philanthropic investment.

How could a solar rapprochement be started, if overt political moves remain premature? Here are some possible elements: With the tacit blessing of the Obama administration, Iranian-American entrepreneurs, perhaps backed by OPIC, could invest in rapid expansion of Iranian solar thermal power. Profitable investment will require subsidies until critical scale is reached: the Executive Board of the Clean Development Mechanism could cooperate by certifying the project as a source of offset credits for European firms in the EU Emissions Trading System. The US, UK and Japan could provide support by backing a large, multilateral startup subsidy via the World Bank’s Clean Technology Fund.

These and other possible avenues are feasible, desirable, and bankable, given the enormous geopolitical benefits of a durable rapprochement between the US and Iran. This is an excellent opportunity, if the leaders and entrepreneurs of both countries can muster the vision and will to seize it. Perhaps the US and Iran will indeed open a sunlit passage that leads toward reconciliation.

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CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD does not take institutional positions.