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June 2, 2022
Middle Eastern States Seeking Nuclear Power
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Peter Crail and Jessica Lasky-Fink

In recent years, more than a dozen states in the Middle East have expressed an interest in developing nuclear energy. These states have offered a number of official rationales for their interest, including powering water desalination plants, diversifying their energy industry in the face of increasing energy demands, and furthering economic and scientific development. The timing of this renewed interest, which coincides with suspicions regarding Iran's nuclear aspirations, suggests that security interests also provide a motivating factor for at least some states in the region.

States in the region have held an interest in developing nuclear energy, in particular for water desalination purposes, for more than a decade. Egypt proposed the construction of nuclear plants for desalination first in 1964, then again in 1974 and 1983. Cairo cancelled those plans due to safety concerns following the 1986 Chernobyl accident. Turkey has also considered the construction of nuclear plants since 1970. In addition, in 1996, Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, and Tunisia requested that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) conduct a feasibility study on nuclear desalination in North Africa.

Beyond the renewed interest in nuclear energy expressed by these states with prior nuclear energy pursuits, Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Yemen have indicated their intent to develop nuclear energy.

Among the Arab states, this renewed interest not only relates to national prerogatives, but also comes as part of broader regional calls to develop nuclear power. Arab League Secretary-General Amr Mousa stated during the March 2006 league summit in Khartoum that "[t]he Arab world's quick and decisive entry into the field of peaceful use of nuclear power is necessary." Months later in December 2006, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), consisting of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, ordered a GCC-wide study for the development of a "joint program in the field of nuclear technology for peaceful purposes." The first stage of this study was completed in late 2007.

A Response to Iran?

Although the expansion of any nuclear energy program can pose challenges for preventing nuclear proliferation, analysts and policymakers have expressed particular concern that the expansion of nuclear energy in the Middle East is laying the foundation for a regional nuclear arms race.

The New York Times April 15, 2007, quoted Robert Joseph, the U.S. special envoy for nuclear nonproliferation, stating that, in regard to the nuclear expansion in the Middle East, "it is becoming urgent for us to shape the future expansion of nuclear energy in a way that reduces the risks of proliferation, while meeting our energy and environmental goals."

The Arab states have issued mixed messages regarding the implications of nuclear expansion in the region. Although maintaining that these programs are solely for the purpose of nuclear energy, Arab officials have warned that an unchecked Iranian nuclear program may lead to regional nuclear proliferation. The New York Times, in the same article, reported that Arab officials at a March 2007 Arab League summit meeting stated that Iran's nuclear aspirations may result in "a grave and destructive nuclear arms race in the region." Egyptian Ambassador Nabil Fahmy echoed this sentiment April 11, telling a Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars audience that he "guaranteed" that there would be greater proliferation in the region if the security motivations behind Iran's proliferation are not addressed and a regional arms control mechanism were not pursued.

Egypt, as well as other Arab states, have frequently called for a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East, largely in response to Israel's suspected nuclear arsenal.

A Senate Foreign Relations Committee report released in February examined in particular how Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey would respond to the development of an Iranian nuclear weapon or capability to produce nuclear weapons. The study concluded that, of those three states, Saudi Arabia is the most likely to seek nuclear weapons to counterbalance Iran's nuclear capabilities. Riyadh, however, does not have as developed a technological base for a nuclear weapons program as the other two states.

According to the study, Egypt's relations with the United States and the potential Israeli response to an Egyptian weapons program would dissuade Cairo from pursuing nuclear weapons. Likewise, it concluded that Turkey's NATO membership, its interest in EU membership, and a popular domestic sentiment against nuclear weapons would lead decision-makers in Ankara away from a weapons program. Turkey also maintains U.S. tactical nuclear weapons as part of a NATO arrangement.

Fuel Assurances or Fuel Cycles?

In order to develop nuclear weapons, a state would need to develop uranium-enrichment or spent fuel reprocessing capabilities, which, respectively, can produce either the highly enriched uranium or the plutonium necessary for nuclear weapons. Although some states have shown no interest in these sensitive technologies, others may want to keep their options open.

Two states, Bahrain and the UAE, have indicated their intention to forgo enrichment and reprocessing technologies and purchase their nuclear fuel on the international market.

On April 20, the UAE issued a white paper on its nuclear energy plans that explained that its decision not to pursue enrichment and reprocessing was based on the "economic infeasibility" of such pursuits, proliferation concerns by the international community, and "the dual-use nature" of components related to such activities.

Similarly, a March 24 Department of State press release regarding the U.S.-Bahraini memorandum of understanding (MOU) on nuclear energy stated that Bahrain "affirmed its intention to forgo sensitive fuel cycle technologies and rely on existing international markets for nuclear fuel." The release noted that this decision stood "in direct contrast to Iran's nuclear activities."

With the exception of Iran, which is developing an enrichment and reprocessing capability, and Israel, which has a reprocessing capability, no other state in the region has expressed an intention to develop such fuel cycle activities. However, some of the region's more influential states may not wish to follow the approach of Bahrain and the UAE and voluntarily give up the right to such technologies, particularly if other states in the region have such programs.

For example, when asked by Arms Control Today April 11 whether the approach by the UAE and Bahrain may be appropriate for the broader region, including Egypt, Fahmy responded that this would be acceptable only if it applied "to the region as a whole," adding that such an approach would not be acceptable if it were aimed at "only limiting the rights of the Arab states."

Lack of Regulatory Capacity

In addition to the concern that an expansion of nuclear energy may lead to state proliferation, the development of a nuclear industry in states with little regulatory capacity and a history of illicit trafficking points to a vulnerability for the smuggling of nuclear materials and technology.

A September 2007 study commissioned by the Pacific Northwest National Laboratories on the expansion of nuclear energy in the region claimed that, in the case of several states in the region, the threat from illicit nuclear trafficking is a greater proliferation concern than the potential development of nuclear weapons by states. The study cites in particular Egypt's defense collaboration with states such as Russia and North Korea, and the UAE's history as a transshipment point for illicit nuclear technology aiding nuclear weapons programs in Libya and Iran.

In response to this concern, some states have begun to develop their regulatory capacity as they move forward with their nuclear plans. The UAE white paper states that the country is committed to "the highest standards of nonproliferation," citing recent efforts to implement export control laws and the establishment of oversight bodies to monitor radioactive material.

Another regulatory concern for states in the region relates to the low level of IAEA safeguards implementation. Many of the states that have expressed interest in nuclear energy either maintain limited or no IAEA safeguards. As these states move forward with their nuclear energy plans and construct nuclear power reactors, they would need to conclude or strengthen their IAEA safeguards procedures.

Three states do not have a comprehensive safeguards agreement currently in force, which allows the IAEA to ensure the peaceful use of nuclear energy. Qatar has not signed a safeguards agreement, and Bahrain has not ratified the comprehensive safeguards agreement and IAEA Small Quantities Protocol (SQP) it signed in September 2007. The SQP allows the state to forgo certain inspection and reporting requirements due to the absence of significant nuclear activities. Saudi Arabia has an SQP in force but has not signed a comprehensive safeguards agreement.

Jordan, Oman, the UAE, and Yemen have comprehensive safeguards agreements but have also concluded an SQP.

An IAEA official told Arms Control Today April 15 that an SQP would cease to become operational once the country obtained a sufficient amount of nuclear material, as defined in their safeguards agreement, or once they introduced nuclear material into a nuclear facility. Morocco, for example, rescinded its SQP in November 2007 due to the construction of a research reactor. By rescinding their SQPs, these states will provide the IAEA with greater authority to collect information on their nuclear programs and ensure their peaceful use.

Although the IAEA amended the SQP in 2005 to stipulate that the protocol is no longer operational once a nuclear facility is planned or constructed, none of the states in the region with operational SQPs have agreed to the amended version.

Libya and Turkey are the only regional states that have concluded an additional protocol to their IAEA safeguards agreement, providing the agency with a more thorough inspections authority than the standard comprehensive safeguards. Morocco signed an additional protocol in 2004.

Suppliers Eye Nuclear Market

Nuclear suppliers have already sought to take advantage of the potentially profitable new market for nuclear energy in the Middle East. China, France, Russia, and the United States have concluded nuclear agreements with some states in the region. Other potential nuclear cooperation partners include South Korea and Pakistan.

France has been the most active supporter of Middle Eastern nuclear energy plans. Its first and most controversial MOU on nuclear energy was signed with Libya in July 2007. Under the cooperation agreement, France committed to assist Libya's civil nuclear program, in part by providing Libya with a nuclear reactor for water desalination. Germany, as well as other European countries, criticized the agreement as threatening the nonproliferation regime, especially in light of Libya's past efforts to acquire nuclear weapons.

Libya maintained programs to develop nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons for decades but agreed to give up these programs in 2003 following negotiations with the United Kingdom and the United States.

France has signed similar nuclear agreements with Algeria, Morocco, and the UAE, and French President Nicolas Sarkozy attempted to extend offers of cooperation to Egypt, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia. In January 2008, three French energy companies, Areva, Suez, and Total, indicated their intent to provide the UAE with two reactors for energy production and desalination.

The United States has sought to conclude its own agreements with states in the region. On April 21, the United States and the UAE signed an MOU similar to the ones the United States already has in place with Algeria and Bahrain. State Department press releases in March and April accompanying the U.S.-Bahrain and U.S.-UAE agreements cited them as expressions of "the United States' desire to cooperate with states in the Middle East, and elsewhere, that want to develop nuclear power in a manner consistent with the highest standards of safety, security and nonproliferation."

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