- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 11, 2008

With interest in atomic energy soaring throughout the Middle East - prompting fears of a regional nuclear arms race - a leading ally is warning the United States to broaden its nonproliferation efforts beyond Iran.

“This didn’t start yesterday, and it’s not about Iran alone,” said Nabil Fahmy, Egypt’s ambassador to the United States. “It’s a much more complicated and complex issue.”

“One problem we all face in the Middle East, and worldwide, is there’s no real commitment to nuclear disarmament,” Mr. Fahmy said at a recent conference sponsored by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington.

Interest in nuclear energy has metastasized in the Middle East, with at least 13 countries announcing plans to create new nuclear programs or restart previous programs between February 2006 and January 2007, according to a recent report by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS).

“This upsurge of interest is remarkable, given both the abundance of traditional energy sources in the region and the low standing to date of nuclear energy,” said John Chipman, director-general and chief executive of the London-based IISS.

Many Middle Eastern governments and analysts who specialize in proliferation say the attention is misplaced.

“There are a lot of different rationales behind the interest,” said Peter Crail, research analyst for the Washington-based Arms Control Association. “I don’t really think that’s an either/or situation.”

With the price of oil leaping higher and higher, nations such as Jordan and Morocco say they need more efficient means to produce energy. However, the IISS report said, others almost certainly seek a buffer against supposed nuclear weapons production by Israel and Iran.

“I think when talking about certain states like Saudi Arabia or Turkey or Egypt,” this is the case, Mr. Crail said. “It’s kind of a cascade effect. One state will have nuclear weapons, which makes another state want nuclear weapons. … There is the potential for a broader, regional arms race.”

However, both Mr. Crail and the report by IISS noted that the majority of programs are in early stages and face structural, financial and environmental challenges.

“Developing a nuclear energy program is a long-term and involved process, and so I think the first thing we have to see is where any of this interest actually goes,” Mr. Crail said. “Just because [countries] have said they’re interested in nuclear programs doesn’t mean they’ll actually happen.”

Mr. Fahmy, the Egyptian ambassador, called the report “superficial and historically inaccurate” at a discussion last week hosted by CSIS, a Washington-based public-policy research institution.

In 1974, Egypt and Iran sponsored an initiative to create a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East, he said, and Egypt currently supports a total weapons-of-mass-destruction-free zone. However, serious partners in the endeavor are lacking.

There are definite benefits to nuclear power, said Earl Skelton, a physics professor at Georgetown University, describing it as a compact, highly efficient energy source.

“For example,” he said, “the USS Harry S. Truman can sail at some phenomenal speed for years without refueling because of its nuclear reactor.”

However, apart from the “legitimate energy and economic motivations behind this sudden regionwide interest in nuclear power, political factors also play an important role,” said Mr. Chipman of the IISS. “For some states, such as Saudi Arabia, an Iranian nuclear weapon would present a direct and dire threat.

“For others, such as Egypt or Turkey, the threat is indirect, and more tied to concerns about the balance of power and loss of relative status and influence in the region.”

The conversion of nuclear capabilities from civilian to military use depends on either uranium enrichment or plutonium reprocessing.

Enriched uranium can power a nuclear reactor or an atomic bomb.

Plutonium, which also can power an atomic bomb, is a byproduct produced in a uranium-fueled reactor that can be extracted by reprocessing used reactor fuel.

Some nations in the Persian Gulf region have agreed not to engage in these processes.

“So if other states in the region also made that commitment, that would go a long way to alleviating concerns that states might use nuclear energy programs as a hedge to later develop weapons,” Mr. Crail said. Additionally, transparent access to inspections would further ensure the technology is used for civilian purposes.

However, the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), signed by almost every Middle Eastern country, does not ban uranium enrichment to make fuel for a nuclear reactor.

“Other countries, Egypt in particular, have basically said that they’re not going to accept any limitations on their nuclear rights,” Mr. Crail said, especially since Israel, who is assumed to have nuclear weapons, has not signed the treaty.

“The argument is, ‘Why should they provide that further access and be further limited when other states aren’t even part of the treaty?’”

Mr. Fahmy, the Egyptian ambassador, seconded this, saying the world is focusing on the “card-carrying members” of the NPT when it should be targeting non-members or those in violation of the treaty.

Additionally, he said, the treaty was not meant to be a long-term solution; instead, it was designed to lead to global disarmament.

Referring to the U.S., he added, “You’re the ones who have the weapons, you’re the ones who’ve used the weapons. If you don’t take a leading role on this, there will be no real pressure on the proliferators not to take [nuclear capabilities] a step further.”

No matter the intentions, the majority of Middle Eastern nations still have a long road ahead before they can harness nuclear power. The IISS report said sustainable new reactor projects are at least 10 to 15 years away, and not every country seeking nuclear energy will be able to harness it.

“This has gotten a lot of attention, but … the interest doesn’t necessarily translate into capability,” Mr. Crail said matter-of-factly. “There’s a lot of talk about a nuclear renaissance throughout the region, but I think it’s going to be a long time before we actually see that happen. There’s a lot of barriers - technical barriers, administrative barriers - before states can begin to move forward.”

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