Marc Lynch

The Middle East goes nuclear

The Middle East goes nuclear

By Brian Katulis

 

One story in the Middle East that hasn’t gotten much attention is the move by many countries in the region to develop their nuclear energy production capacities – an important shift that should impact any analyses that examine broader regional dynamics. Our delegation to the Gulf heard a good bit about this civilian nuclear energy push in the Emirates, and it seems inevitable that the Obama administration will preside over a new expansion of nuclear energy in the Middle East — even in the oil-rich parts.

Everyone knows about the Iranian nuclear program and the widespread concerns about it – Sandy Spector, a nonproliferation expert who was on the Gulf trip and currently is deputy director of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, wrote this excellent piece on Obama’s emerging strategy towards Iran and its nuclear program. Clearly, the Iranian nuclear program is one of the leading challenges facing the new administration.

Beyond Iran, there’s been a race between the United States, Russia, France, and China to sign nuclear cooperation deals with countries in the Middle East, and all of these efforts could represent important steps to shaping the broader regional economic, political, and security architecture in the region. The history of nuclear programs in the Middle East is a long and complicated one — much too long for a blog post, and it involves things like President Eisenhower’s "Atoms for Peace" program that supported early Iranian efforts to develop its civilian nuclear industry.

The past three years has seen a renewed push for civilian nuclear energy in several corners of the Middle East. A few noteworthy moves and announcements include:

  • Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) December 2006 statement on civilian nuclear energy.  After a summit in Riyadh, the six members of the GCC (Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates) issued this statement announcing plans to seek nuclear energy technology while repeating the demand to make the entire Middle East a zone free of weapons of mass destruction. In 2007, the GCC states asked for the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) help in developing its civilian nuclear capacity, and the IAEA has since said positive things about the prospects for these plans.
  • The Bush administration signs nuclear energy cooperation agreements. Throughout 2007 and 2008, the Bush administration signed a number of memos of understanding with Middle East countries, including Jordan (September 2007), Bahrain (March 2008), and Saudi Arabia (May 2008). And earlier this year, in its last week in office, the Bush administration signed a nuclear cooperation agreement with the United Arab Emirates
  • Other Middle Eastern countries announce nuclear efforts. Egypt unveiled a plan to develop nuclear power plants and even poor countries like Yemen have said that it wants to develop these capacities. Kuwait formed a nuclear energy commission earlier this month.
  • France, Russia, and China get in on the action. France, which has a well-developed civilian nuclear capacity of its own, has worked with a number of countries in the Middle East and North Africa to set up efforts to develop civilian nuclear capacities and signed several agreements with countries in the region.  So have Russia and China

What’s the impetus behind this effort to go nuclear and do it legit? Obviously, the Iranian nuclear program is a key motivation. Countries in the Middle East and in the West are wary of the Iranian nuclear program, and they want to send a signal that pursuing peaceful nuclear energy under the framework of international safeguards is the way to go. There is also the possibility that these states want to develop the technical expertise necessary to develop a nuclear weapon if they perceive it to be necessary.

Second, there are real energy development needs in the medium to long term for many Middle Eastern countries, particularly those like Egypt that have a growing population and few or dwindling oil and gas resources.  Even the oil-rich countries in the GCC are concerned about providing for their energy needs – a lot of power is expended to power air conditioning, desalination plants, and, yes, even indoor ski slopes in the desert. Just this week, the Emirates announced it would join a GCC-wide electricity grid, which is the type of cooperative regional venture U.S. policy should look to support. Still, members of Congress like Rep. Edward Markey wonder why these countries need nuclear power specifically to meet there energy needs when other options like solar power exist.

For the Obama administration, these civilian nuclear programs present both opportunities and risks. The opportunity is to further deepen some alliances with key countries in the region, and do it in a way that shows Iran that there are positive rewards available for operating civil nuclear power under tight international safeguards. The risks are obvious — many countries (like Pakistan and India) have used civil nuclear assistance as a stepping stone to nuclear weapons programs. And the more fissile material that exists anywhere, the greater the chance there is for it to leak into the hands of terrorist groups, organized crime, or other malicious entities.

President Obama has repeatedly stated a vision for his Middle East policy as one that is integrated — most recently in his speech last month on Iraq:  "…we can no longer deal with regional challenges in isolation – we need a smarter, more sustainable and comprehensive approach." These civilian nuclear cooperation efforts in the Middle East are one piece of the broader puzzles of both non-proliferation policy and regional strategy, and will require careful management.