international analysis and commentary

Nuclear proliferation in the Middle East: fears and reality

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Despite widespread calls for a nuclear-free Middle East, many countries in the region are in the process of either starting civilian nuclear programs or expressing interest in doing so.

Since 2005, at least 13 countries in the Middle East have shown new or renewed interest in the development of civilian nuclear energy. Out of six Gulf Cooperation Council member states, Kuwait seems to be the only one abandoning its original nuclear plans, as a consequence of the 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan. With the completion of four nuclear power plants between 2017 and 2020, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) will be the first Arab state to use nuclear energy in the region. Qatar has been considering this option since 2008, and Saudi Arabia recently announced its intention to launch its own, with the goal of achieving an electricity output of 110 gigawatts by 2032. Finally, Iran is continuing its program despite the controversies surrounding it and the international suspicions about its military nature. Among other countries in the region, Turkey is at an advanced stage, having already signed an agreement for the construction of up to four reactors. Lastly, in the past few decades, Jordan and Egypt gained significant experience in nuclear research, although it might be early to define the position of the new Egyptian President, Mohamed Morsi, with regard to a program purely oriented to civilian purposes.

The escalating electricity demand due to rapidly growing populations, the costly process of water desalination, currently fueled by oil and gas, and the need to reduce dependency from petroleum and natural gas products for economic reasons are the motivations regional policymakers use to justify their choice to go nuclear.

Seen from a Western angle, these demands for nuclear programs represent a cause for serious concern and skepticism. The mistrust of nuclear-have nations is based on the fact that, as demonstrated by the current stalemate in the Iranian nuclear issue, civilian nuclear development can be (and has been in recent decades) the preferred path for developing a military nuclear capability. The natural abundance of energy resources in the region has often times been referred to as proof that these states do not need nuclear energy and that what they are really after are dual-use facilities that can be easily converted in nuclear military programs.

It should be recalled that all aspiring nuclear states in the region are signatories of the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and can therefore benefit from what is described in Art. IV as “the inalienable right” to pursue peaceful uses of nuclear energy. Yet, uranium conversion, enrichment and the reprocessing of plutonium can lead to the production either of fuel for civilian nuclear reactors or of weapons-grade nuclear material. It goes without saying that a country’s indigenous production of nuclear fuel drastically increases the potential to develop a clandestine weapons program in parallel with a peaceful nuclear one.

Whereas some countries, such as the UAE and Saudi Arabia, have been encouraged by nuclear-have states to go nuclear, others (Syria until 2007, Iran and Jordan), have been openly discouraged to do so. When the UAE voluntarily signed a nuclear energy exchange agreement – refraining from  developing nuclear fuel – it received international support for its program. On the other hand, Jordan, the only country with a significant amount of uranium in the region (it holds the 11th-biggest uranium deposits in the world), has been deterred, particularly by the US and Israel, from going nuclear.

The debate over civilian programs in the Middle East is particularly contentious today. On one side, countries in the region do not want to incur in dynamics that, through the control over nuclear fuel supply, would replicate their dependency on Western political and economic power and undermine their right to civilian nuclear power. On the other, nuclear-have states want to avoid the unregulated spread of civilian nuclear fuel cycle programs in region, given the consequent weaponization risks.

Such fears are heightened by the apparent overlap between the rising interest in nuclear power in the Middle East and the emergence of the controversial Iranian nuclear issue, the argument being that states in the region might have decided to opt for the nuclear path, driven not by energy concerns, but by national prestige and regional security calculus. The currently strong political cleavages in the region, following the Arab uprisings and revolutionary changes, further increase concerns that threat (mis)perceptions might lead to perverse proliferation dynamics in the region.

During the NPT Review conference in May 2010, states committed to hold a conference in 2012 on “A Nuclear-Weapons and Other Weapons of Mass Destruction-Free Zone in the Middle East”. The ambitious goal of the forum, which would be the first of its kind, is to discuss the creation of a Middle East free of all weapons of mass destruction, with direct implications for both regional and global security.

The “Free Zone in the Middle East” conference has been scheduled to be held in Helsinki between the end of 2012 and the beginning of 2013. However, officials involved in the process raised concerns about the wrong timing of the meeting. It is probably too early to assess the impact on the nuclear ambitions of Arab Spring countries and the turmoil in the region. Arab countries currently seem to be driven by other policy priorities, and seem more concerned about domestic and regional stability than about the nuclear question.

Furthermore, despite the participation of all twenty-two members of the Arab League, the scheduled meeting will have limited significance without Iran and Israel sitting at the table. Neither Iran – who on September 14th was officially invited to attend the conference by Finnish Under Secretary of State Jaakko Laajava – nor Israel have so far officially rejected or accepted to participate, relying on a “wait and see” strategy. The current tensions between the two over the Iranian nuclear program, however, makes their attendance and engagement in a discussion on nuclear proliferation in the Middle East very unlikely.

Despite (or because of) the turmoil and unpredictability of current dynamics in the region, both regional players and the international community should maintain their commitment and attend the conference. This could become a forum of discussion and provide some initial confidence-building measures among suspicious states. It could also set an agenda to discuss and implement standards for safety, security and non-proliferation. This could potentially boost the support of nuclear-have states for the development of nuclear energy in the Middle East. This, in turn, could facilitate the creation of a framework for the regional regulation and cooperation over civilian nuclear programs which would increase prospects for Middle Eastern security.