A comprehensive and well-detailed report by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, released last week, sheds a pile of information on the state of nuclear proliferation in one of the world’s most volatile regions - the Middle East.
Indeed, as John Chipman, director general and chief executive of IISS, points out in a publication entitled “Nuclear Programs in the Middle East: In the Shadow of Iran,” the worrying factor lies in the sudden awakening of several Middle Eastern countries that, now sensing a threat from Iran, feel the urge to jump onto the nuclear bandwagon.
“In the span of the 11 months between February 2006 and January 2007, at least 13 countries in the Middle East announced new or revived plans to pursue or explore civilian nuclear energy,” said Mr. Chipman.
As the IISS director pointed out, this sudden interest by Middle Eastern countries in nuclear energy is “remarkable” in view of the region’s abundance of traditional energy sources - such as natural gas and crude oil.
With the exception of Israel, in the rest of the region, from Morocco in North Africa to the southern tip of the Arabian peninsula, “There is not a single nuclear power plant in operation today,” said Mr. Chipman.
The other exceptions are those being built in Iran - the Bushehr facility being built with Russian assistance. It is this facility, as well as the gas-centrifuge plant at Natanz and the heavy water reactor at Arak, against which the Bush administration and the Israelis are threatening to take military action, unless Iran complies with the international community’s request that it put a stop to its nuclear program.
These sites and others scattered throughout Iran were kept secret by the Islamic Republic and were revealed to the world by the Iranian resistance, the People’s Mujahedin of Iran.
Past attempts by Arab countries to develop nuclear power plants have been thwarted before they could reach completion. Such was the case with the Osirak nuclear power plant that Saddam Hussein was hoping to build with French assistance, until the facility and his dreams were shattered in an Israeli air raid on June 7, 1981.
A more recent effort to develop nuclear capability was an attempt by Syria, allegedly with North Korean help, and it too was destroyed by Israel last September. Syria denies it was building a nuclear facility, but a high-ranking European diplomat told this reporter “there was no doubt Syria was building a facility to develop a nuclear program.”
The danger stemming from Iran’s pursuit of its nuclear ambition, besides the fact it could launch a regional conflict should Israel decide to take military action, is further amplified by the risk of nuclear proliferation throughout the region.
The IISS report states, “Each of the new nuclear-aspirant states announced its decision in terms of electricity needs, energy diversification and the economic benefits of nuclear power.” The reality, however, may be somewhat more macabre. As Mr. Chipman points out, “Promotion of nuclear energy is one way in which Sunni states are trying to counter the rising sense of Shia empowerment following the 2006 Lebanon war.”
Such is the case in Egypt, where President Hosni Mubarak, and more specifically his son Gamal, are seizing upon nuclear power as a national project upon which to promote the son’s campaign to succeed his father.
Again Mr. Chipman: “If Tehran’s nuclear program is unchecked, there is reason for concern that it could in time prompt a regional cascade of proliferation among Iran’s neighbors.”
Already, besides Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey have voiced interest in going nuclear.
The good news, if one can be optimistic enough to find good among reports of numerous countries wanting to arm themselves with nuclear weapons, is that the danger of proliferation in the Middle East, says Mr. Chipman, “while real, is not imminent.”
What appears to be playing out in the Middle East today is the positioning of the region’s powers so they can, if they find the need to move ahead into the nuclear field, arrive there without additional delay. Saudi Arabia, for example, is unlikely to develop its own nuclear program but, as several reports have indicated, it would rely on a defense pact with nuclear-powered Pakistan.
Mr. Chipman predicts that over time the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program could become a powerful regional proliferation driver. In other words, the result would be, on the one hand, a race between Sunni and Shia and, on the other, between the region’s political powers - that is, assuming the United States and/or Israel would refrain from intervening militarily.
Claude Salhani is editor of the Middle East Times.