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Monday, December 11, 2006

New Nuclear Programs in the Middle East:What do they mean?

December 11, 2006 No. 3

New Nuclear Programs in the Middle East:

What do they mean?

Emily B. Landau

One of the greatest risks associated with Iran's apparent drive to acquire a
nuclear weapons capability is that it will spark further nuclear proliferation
in the region. According to recent reports, six new states in the Middle East
are considering developing nuclear programs - the IAEA has named Algeria,
Egypt, Morocco and Saudi Arabia and noted that Tunisia and the UAE have also
shown interest in this regard - which seems to suggest that the risk is now
becoming a reality.

In fact, these states want to proceed down a path that could prove to be very
similar to the one taken by Iran. They have expressed their desire to develop
legitimate civilian nuclear programs, but the case against Iran today hinges
on the dangerously close relationship between civilian and military nuclear
programs: a civilian program can be used as a cover for or forerunner of a
military program. The prospect of additional states exploiting the weakness of
the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty - which allows for the development of
potentially problematic civilian programs - is unsettling to say the least.
And the fact that six states have expressed such interest at the same time
raises strong suspicions that this is a reaction to the perceived danger of a
nuclear capable Iran and may be tied to plans to develop an Arab nuclear bomb.

While these are very serious concerns, it is far from clear whether these
states have really made a decision to go nuclear. At this early stage, they
may well want to create the impression that they will not remain on the
sidelines in the face of Iran's challenge, but there are no clear indications
that they (individually or collectively) have made up their minds actually to
embark on the same path as Iran.

For example, Egypt - one of the more serious potential proliferators - is
undoubtedly most troubled by the prospect of Iran becoming a nuclear state and
has begun to voice its concerns more openly than in the past. Moreover, some
statements made by Egyptian officials working in the nuclear realm in recent
years have established that Egypt regards civilian nuclear technology as
something that can later be applied to a military program, if a decision to do
so is taken. But while Egypt certainly wants to signal its potential
capabilities, it is less likely at this stage to move in the direction of
nuclear weapons development. Egypt is not talking about an indigenous uranium
enrichment capability and it remains a major advocate of nonproliferation
efforts in the Middle East. Moreover, through the global nuclear energy
partnership (GNEP) launched in early 2006, the US has been encouraging states
in the direction of nuclear energy programs, and some argue that this may help
explain Egypt's interest, especially as US State Department Spokesman Sean
McCormack said last month that the US had no objection to Egypt's nuclear
program. In Morocco there are also contradictory signals which make it
difficult to support a conclusion that this state is interested in achieving a
military capability: Morocco has reportedly made plans to develop a nuclear
program but it has also joined a US-led effort to prevent the proliferation of
weapons of mass destruction - the first North African country to do so.

There are other indications of an emerging desire for coordination and
cooperation among moderate Arab states as a means of confronting the negative
implications of Iran's nuclear ambitions. In late October, three Gulf states
joined others in a day-long exercise in the Persian Gulf, in which they
practiced intercepting and searching ships suspected of trafficking in
unconventional weapons. The exercise was carried out under the Proliferation
Security Initiative (PSI), a US-led nonproliferation initiative. This was the
first such exercise to take place in the Persian Gulf (near Bahrain, just
across the Gulf from Iran), and it signaled to Iran that its neighbors will
not stand idly by while it develops nuclear weapons.

Regional states can pursue two different routes in attempting to confront
Iran's nuclear ambitions: they can participate in arms control efforts geared
to enhancing their regional security, or they can attempt to join the nuclear
club. In light of failing international efforts to stop Iran, these states
appear to be pursuing both avenues and it is not clear which they will
ultimately choose, nor is it surprising that they want to keep their options
open. While they would like to participate in efforts to stop Iran, they feel
that they can not risk being left on the sidelines if all efforts to stop or
curb Iran ultimately fail.

Enhancing arms control efforts and encouraging regional security dialogue
could be critical for lowering the motivation of states to strive for their
own nuclear options. Creating frameworks within which their security concerns
can be raised, recognized and addressed would be an important first stage.
Initial agreement to cooperate in areas of clear mutual concern is already on
the agenda, as evidenced by the PSI exercise. It is also underscored by a
meeting that was held in Aqaba, Jordan in late September in which Palestinian
Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, Israeli General Security Service head Yuval
Diskin, and heads of intelligence services from Jordan, Egypt, and two states
in the Persian Gulf all took part. At the meeting, Jordan expressed its
willingness to host meetings geared to advancing the peace process and
fighting terrorism. Significantly, the need to coordinate and cooperate among
all sides and exchange information among them in order to fight terror in the
region was emphasized.

Creating alternative routes for states to enhance their mutual security could
help them resist the conclusion that the only way to ensure their individual
security in the face of a nuclear Iran is to develop their own nuclear bomb.
Given that most states will need a lot of time to acquire a military nuclear
capability, their incentive to explore alternative routes is likely to be

Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors. Originally posted at Please do link to these articles, quote from them and forward them by email to friends with this notice. Other uses require written permission of the author.


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