Saturday, December 20, 2008

A Middle East Nuclear Arms Race?

Saudi Arabia following in the foot steps of Abu Dhabi has put its weight behind the development of alternative energy if oil prices settle at about $75 a barrel. The move is significant because the Kingdom as the world's largest oil producer drives OPEC policy. Yet, geopolitics as always in the Middle East may lurk in the background of that decision. Pointing to mounting friction between Egypt and Iran, The Wall Street Journal notes: "...the broader context of the friction is its steady progress toward a nuclear weapon and the encroachment by Iran into the Arab world -- principally through Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza and the Mahdists in Iraq. States like Egypt and Saudi Arabia watched with dismay in the summer of 2006 as Israel failed to deliver a knockout blow against Hezbollah. Now they calculate that the U.S. lacks the will to prevent a nuclear Iran. As for Barack Obama's promise of 'tough diplomacy,' we suspect the Arab states take him about as seriously as they would a tourist who thinks he knows how to bargain at an oriental bazaar. Little wonder, then, that the Arab states are taking a keen interest in acquiring nuclear capabilities of their own."

The Journal's argument that major oil producers like Saudi Arabia or Algeria have little need for nuclear energy and may like Israel and India did view non-military nuclear technology as a first step towards obtaining a bomb, while probably accurate may be a bit narrow. Diversification is key to concepts of development, certainly in the Gulf and ensuring that Gulf oil producers are at the forefront of issues such as pushing energy frontiers, preserving resources and greening the world makes perfect sense.

But Arab efforts to play catch up with Israel are not new starting with Iraq whose Osirak reactor was destroyed by Israel in 1981. Libya as part of its reintegration into the international community admitted having a program and discontinued it. Israel this summer attacked what was purported to be a burgeoning nuclear North Korea-assisted facility in Syria and Saudi Arabia, despite the Kingdom's denials has persistently been reported to be working with Pakistan. Perhaps most advanced in efforts to obtain civilian nuclear technology is the UAE' with its nearly finalized 123 agreement with the United States on nuclear technology designed to help the Emirates build nuclear power stations for its rapidly growing cities. Backed by the Bush administration, the agreement already faces opposition from some members of the US Congress. Just how Iran lurks in the background of all of this, was evident when UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed earlier this week joined representatives of Jordan, Egypt and Iraq in a meeting at UN headquarters in New York with the P5 + 1 group -- the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany plus the European Commission -- to discuss Gulf security and ways of stopping Iran from developing its nuclear military capability.

Still, it's difficult to see what use oil giants like the Saudis or Algerians would have for nuclear power except as a hedge against an Iranian bomb. IAEA safeguards or not, possession of "civilian" nuclear technology served India and Israel as the crucial first step to getting a bomb.

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