Every country in the Arab world, it seems, wants a nuclear reactor. In May 2008, a consortium of seven nations, Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Syria, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen, announced they had agreed on a plan to boost nuclear power generation in the region. The proclamation is only the latest of several that have followed a March 2006 appeal from Secretary General of the Arab League and former Egyptian Foreign Minister ‘Amr Musa “to quickly and powerfully enter the world of using nuclear power.” [1]

While most Arab countries gave up nuclear programs in the 1970s and 1980s, they now regret the decision and feel duped into making it. In the ensuing decades, they have watched other countries—Israel, India, Pakistan and, maybe, Iran—use these programs to advance their strategic objectives. The resulting renewed quest for nuclear power has sidestepped any serious assessment of whether it is the best solution for meeting Arab energy needs, let alone the possibility of proliferation of nuclear weapons technology. With commercial and strategic interests taking precedence, the United States, along with France and Russia, has led a furious competition to ink bilateral nuclear cooperation agreements across the Middle East. The US has actively pursued such deals with Arab countries, selling the accords as a means of counterbalancing Iran. Its most recent success came on May 16, 2008, when Saudi Arabia put pen to paper on a Memorandum of Understanding on Civilian Nuclear Cooperation. France has signed similar agreements with Algeria, Libya, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates, and attempted to extend the deals to Egypt and Qatar. In March 2008, Russia signed a nuclear pact with Egypt and declared it would bid on a contract to build Morocco’s first nuclear power plant. Russia, of course, also continues nuclear cooperation with Iran.

All of the declarations by Arab states regarding nuclear pursuits have made clear that their programs will be developed under the purview of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), which specifies International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections to verify the lack of a concurrent effort to build an atomic bomb. The pursuit of nuclear technology for peaceful purposes is the right of any country that is a signatory to the NPT, but acquiring this costly, sensitive equipment and expertise comes at a heavy price for all involved. This is not only because the same technology needed to generate electricity—the nuclear fuel cycle—can be refined and enhanced to enrich uranium to weapons grade. It is because the rush to build reactors across the geostrategic center of today’s world occurs not on a level playing field governed by strict rules, but on a field where the strongest players bend the rules to their own advantage and, frequently, set the rules.

Faustian Bargain

The parameters of the debate over the spread of nuclear power are generally limited to non-proliferation of the atomic bomb. As long as the international community, chiefly the United States, trusts the petitioning country to limit its ambitions to power generation, no red flags are raised. But it makes no sense for the debate to be so circumscribed.

The NPT is a Faustian bargain between the five countries that possess nuclear weapons as defined by the treaty—Great Britain, China, France, Russia and the US—and the ones that do not. The nuclear have-nots agree not to seek nuclear weapons and, in exchange, they have the right to nuclear technology for civilian nuclear power. Under the treaty, the nuclear haves agree to pursue, in good faith, negotiations to eliminate their stockpiles of atomic weapons. As IAEA Director General Mohammed ElBaradei has repeatedly said, non-proliferation and disarmament are two sides of the same coin.

With a few exceptions, the nuclear have-nots have held up their end of the deal. Meanwhile, as the nuclear haves decry any violation by the nuclear have-nots, they continue to exploit the regime by maintaining vast nuclear arsenals as the cornerstone of their national security strategies. It has also increasingly become the case that the nuclear haves decide who may or may not have access to nuclear technology, rather than basing the system on criteria established under international norms and institutions. This growing hypocrisy is taxing a non-proliferation regime that is already under extreme duress.

Washington’s Nuclear Pacts

Cases in point: The US has been happy to oblige Arab states in their nuclear power pursuits under the rubric of its Global Nuclear Energy Partnership, a mechanism for bolstering a US nuclear industry seeking a renaissance and facilitating US plans to reprocess spent nuclear fuel from both domestic and foreign reactors. Nine US senators signed a letter on April 24, 2008 urging funding cuts to the Partnership, on the grounds of concerns ranging from cost to the risks of nuclear proliferation and environmental contamination, but the program is otherwise popular. [2] Washington has also used nuclear agreements to sell the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism, a voluntary grouping of countries that agree to counter-proliferation principles but are not bound by a treaty nor coordinated under a formal bureaucratic structure.

In June 2007, Algeria, which has two nuclear reactors, neither of which have produced electricity for the country, followed in the footsteps of Morocco, Libya and Egypt and entered into a so-called Sister Lab agreement between American nuclear laboratories and nuclear researchers in Algeria, as part of the Energy Department’s International Nuclear Safeguards and Engagement Program. The program allows for US nuclear laboratories to provide technical expertise to participating countries. Algeria is believed to have some 50,000 tons of uranium in deposits in the south, meaning that, should it decide to pursue mastery of the nuclear fuel cycle, it has the raw material. A few months later, the US signed a pact with Jordan to develop requirements for appropriate power reactors, fuel service arrangements, civilian training, nuclear safety, energy technology and other related areas. In exchange, Jordon obliged the US by signing onto the controversial Global Nuclear Energy Partnership. Jordan is thought to have some 80,000 tons of uranium.

On March 24, 2008, the US and Bahrain signed an agreement to cooperate on nuclear technology. According to the State Department press release, “The Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) is a tangible expression of the United States’ desire to cooperate with states in the Middle East, and elsewhere, that want to develop peaceful nuclear power in a manner consistent with the highest standards of safety, security and non-proliferation and thereby serve as models for the responsible pursuit of the benefits of nuclear technology.” The State Department also said the memorandum “reflects Bahrain’s commitment to serve as a model in the region. In particular, Bahrain affirmed its intention to forgo sensitive fuel cycle technologies and rely on existing international markets for nuclear fuel. This stands in direct contrast to Iran’s nuclear activities.” The same language appeared in the public statement about the accord with the Saudis, who were also applauded for their commitment “to reducing the effects of greenhouse gases on the global climate.”

The US also signed a Memorandum of Understanding on nuclear cooperation with the United Arab Emirates on April 21, 2008. The memorandum followed the UAE’s policy on nuclear energy, by which, according to the State Department, the princes “chose to forgo a costly domestic reprocessing and enrichment capability in favor of long-term arrangements for the assured supply of foreign-manufactured nuclear fuel.” This choice, continued the State Department release, “serves as a model for the economical and responsible pursuit of nuclear power.”

For Washington, these agreements with Arab countries stem from the perceived need to counterbalance Iran’s nuclear program, as well as from the desire to regain its own leadership in the region. (The Arab countries, for their part, surely are also thinking about Israel.) But this renewed nuclear drive also underscores the need to redress the inequality in the global non-proliferation regime. As the US and other nuclear weapons countries attempt to control the way in which nuclear technology and know-how is spread, they only widen the gap between the haves and have-nots and lend further credibility to the perception that nuclear prowess is a form of prestige and authority.

Elephant in the Room

When it comes to nuclear programs in the Middle East, Israel is the elephant in the room and the 800-lb. gorilla in the region. Israel maintains a policy of “deliberate ambiguity” regarding its nuclear arsenal, though it is widely believed to have hundreds of nuclear weapons (at least 150, according to former President Jimmy Carter). While Israel refuses to sign the NPT, it still receives the benefits granted to non-nuclear weapons states under the treaty, in the form of assistance for its Dimona reactor, developed in decades past with help from the West.

The first nuclear agreements between the US and Israel were signed over 20 years ago. In April 2008, however, the two countries significantly expanded their cooperation in a deal whereby Washington will give Israel’s Atomic Energy Commission access to most of the latest nuclear safety data, procedures and technology available in the US. The expanded US-Israeli nuclear agreement highlights the need to close loopholes in the NPT regarding the transfer of nuclear know-how. Under Article 1 of the NPT, the nuclear weapons states agree “not to transfer to any recipient whatsoever nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices or control over such weapons or explosive devices directly, or indirectly; and not in any way to assist, encourage or induce any non-nuclear weapon state to manufacture or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices, or control over such weapons or explosive devices.” Expanded US nuclear cooperation with Israel could be a violation of US obligations under the NPT if, by default, the assistance benefits Israel’s nuclear weapons program.

The new US-Israeli nuclear agreement also underlines the importance of safety and security procedures at nuclear facilities, particularly in countries that have facilities where international access is limited. According to Ha’aretz correspondent Yossi Melman, “In recent years Israel has tried to improve and broaden its ties in the nuclear field with as many countries and organizations as possible. This was done in an effort to breach its isolation in this field, but also because of the need for foreign assistance to help ensure safety at the nuclear research compound in Dimona, as well as monitor nuclear waste at the site.” [3] If Israel has over three decades of experience with its nuclear program and still needs assistance with safety and security, imagine the safety and security implications of the rapid spread of nuclear reactors across the Middle East in countries that have little or no nuclear experience.

Zone of Targets

The risks of that rapid spread are greater still. A vital goal for the region’s security is that is become a zone free of weapons of mass destruction, meaning, chiefly, nuclear weapons. Originally proposed in 1991, and incorporated into UN Security Council Resolution 687, the Gulf war ceasefire resolution, such a zone would be an important step toward stabilizing the region and contributing to a nuclear-free world. Arab countries use the proposal to point out that Israel is the only country in the region that possesses nuclear weapons and to demonstrate that the US employs a double standard in demanding no nuclear weapons programs from Arab states and Iran, yet aiding and abetting Israel’s program. ElBaradei has also said that Israel’s refusal to discuss its assumed nuclear weapons stockpile has “served as an incentive for countries to arm themselves with equal or similar weapons capacity.”

For its part, Israel has stalled negotiations on creating a zone free of weapons of mass destruction because it views itself as being surrounded by mostly hostile neighbors. Given that, it is unlikely that Israel will eliminate its nuclear arsenal, let alone agree in principle to nuclear disarmament, if other countries in the region have indigenous fuel cycle capabilities. Thus, the push for nuclear power in the region could come at the expense of disarmament and non-proliferation.

Any decision proactively to spread access to nuclear power must also assess costs associated with the volatility of the region. Nuclear reactors have repeatedly been targets during times of war in the Middle East. Israel conducted the first airstrike against a nuclear power plant in 1981, claiming that the French-built Osirak reactor 18 miles south of Baghdad was designed to make nuclear weapons. During the Iran-Iraq war, Iraq repeatedly struck Iran’s Bushehr nuclear reactor. The first strike took place on March 24, 1984, inflicting light damage; two more took place in 1985, one in 1986, two in 1987, and a final raid occurred in 1988. Iraq also fired a number of Scuds at Israel’s Dimona reactor during the 1991 Gulf war, though the missiles did not land in the vicinity. More recently, the administration of President George W. Bush has drawn up plans for and repeatedly threatened to launch military strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities.

The spread of nuclear reactors in the region means that there will be more targets in times of war. Attacks on nuclear reactors run the significant risk of a core meltdown that would release radiological material, with enormous consequences for human health and the environment, not to mention the staggering economic costs of relocating populations and cleaning up such a disaster.

Risky Business

On September 6, 2007, Israel conducted airstrikes against a facility in Syria that both Israel and the US claim was a nuclear reactor built by North Korea and could have been used to make nuclear weapons. The US role in this action, sketchily reported at the time, was elaborated on April 29, 2008, when the White House briefed journalists on previously classified intelligence on the Syrian site. Following Congressional hearings, President George W. Bush gave a full explanation for why the administration had chosen to reveal the information. According to Bush, the timing of the release was meant to send a warning to Syria, North Korea and Iran to advance “certain policy objectives.” Bush said, “One would be to the North Koreans, to make it abundantly clear that we know more about them than they think. Then we have an interest in sending a message to Iran, and the world, for that matter, about just how destabilizing nuclear proliferation would be in the Middle East.” He said another objective was to send a message to Syria about “their intransigence in dealing with, you know, helping us in Iraq or destabilizing Lebanon or dealing with Hamas.” Bush also said the information was not released sooner for fear Syria would retaliate against Israel, but was released instead “at a time when, you know, we felt the risk of retaliation or, you know, confrontation in the Middle East was reduced.” [4]

Even if the Syrian facility could have been used to make nuclear weapons, which Syria denies, Israel’s military strike, in violation of international law, was extremely risky and furthered the very dangerous precedent of the preventive military option set by the US invasion of Iraq under spurious claims Saddam Hussein was developing weapons of mass destruction.

The military strikes also, of course, significantly contributed to eliminating the possibility that the IAEA could verify intelligence regarding the facility and collect any additional intelligence. (Syria razed the facility shortly after the raid.) Acting on their own, Israel and the US undermined the established mechanisms for dealing with nuclear proliferation and the international non-proliferation regime in general.

To be sure, military threats are unlikely to influence the countries whose behavior the US and Israel seek to change. In the case of Iran, repeated threats of military attacks have failed to convince Iran to forgo uranium enrichment and failed to produce any change in the Iranian government’s behavior. Instead, threats have strengthened the hand of hardliners in Iran’s clerical regime and made life more difficult for those inside the country working for democracy and reform.

Indeed, reliance on military force to prevent proliferation is likely to backfire and harden the resolve of countries seeking nuclear capabilities as a means of defense against external intervention. Threats of military attacks against nuclear facilities will only encourage countries to develop nuclear programs in secret rather than under the watchful eye of the IAEA.

Eliminating the Double Standards

US support for the Israeli strikes on the Syrian facility exposed the double standard of a policy that allows some countries to pursue nuclear programs, but prevents others from doing so at all costs, including the use of military force. It is true that Syria, if it had in fact built a reactor with help from North Korea, had done so clandestinely and in violation of its NPT obligations. Yet it is also obvious that the US would erect every obstacle in Syria’s path were it to pursue nuclear technology even within the NPT’s rules. The Bush administration’s contradictory policy of promoting nuclear energy for some countries while denying it to others is extremely destabilizing. Before simply spreading nuclear technology to friendly governments, the US and other nuclear weapons states must consider the implications for the non-proliferation regime.

Ultimately, much bolder reversals of Bush administration policy are needed. Rather than using Iran’s nuclear program as an excuse to sell nuclear power in the Middle East, the US should drop all preconditions and begin serious negotiations to resolve outstanding issues with Iran. In addition, the US should halt any nuclear cooperation agreements with countries that lie outside of the NPT. The US should also work to bring Israel, as well as India and Pakistan, into the global non-proliferation regime and into any disarmament negotiations.

Most importantly, however, nuclear capabilities must be devalued as a currency of prestige and power, and all of the nuclear weapons states must demonstrate verifiable progress toward nuclear disarmament. If this does not happen, the growing gap between the nuclear haves and have-nots will only continue to widen. In such a world, there will always be countries that seek nuclear capabilities to use either as a bargaining chip or as a threat. Addressing the deep-seated inequalities of the non-proliferation regime is far more likely than nuclear cooperation agreements to mitigate proliferation concerns in the Middle East and around the world.


[1] Sammy Salama and Gina Cabrera-Farraj, “Secretary General of Arab League Urges Arab Countries to Exploit Nuclear Power, Enter ‘Nuclear Club’,” WMD Insights (May 2006).
[2] The text of letter is available at the website of the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation: http://www.armscontrolcenter.org/policy/nonproliferation/articles/center_applauds_reprocessing_cut_request/.
[3] Ha’aretz, April 14, 2008.
[4] New York Times, April 30, 2008.

How to cite this article:

Carah Ong "The Growing Danger of a Nuclear Middle East," Middle East Report 247 (Summer 2008).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


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