Israel stays mum as Sunni states clamor for nuclear power

Israel stays mum as Sunni states clamor for nuclear power.

Mubarak 248 88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Mubarak 248 88
(photo credit: AP [file])
Israel was noticeably quiet Tuesday, a day after Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak announced a plan to build several nuclear power plants - a proposal heralded in the Egyptian press as a major national project. Israel was noticeably quiet last Tuesday as well, the day French President Nicolas Sarkozy went to Morocco and pledged that France would help the country build a civil nuclear energy industry. This pronouncement came a day after Sarkozy met with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Paris and took a forceful stand on stepping up sanctions to halt Iran's nuclear program. And Israel was noticeably quiet when Yemen signed an agreement last month with a US company to build nuclear plants over the last 10 years. There are two patterns here. The first is that one Sunni country after another is expressing interest in developing a nuclear program for "peaceful needs," and the second is that Israel is not saying anything, at least publicly, about it. The first pattern - the blossoming of Sunni-dominated countries that have proclaimed an interest in a civilian nuclear capacity - is due both to Shi'ite Iran and to domestic politics. As far as Iran is concerned, Teheran's march toward nuclear capacity has already given it added clout and prestige in the region. As a result, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait, the UAE, Morocco, Libya, Jordan and, of course, Egypt want some of the prestige that comes from being in possession of nuclear technology, civilian or otherwise - if not to embark on a nuclear weapons program, then at least to have the technology in place "for a rainy day" if Iran does develop a bomb. But even if Iran stops its nuclear program, possession of nuclear technology would place these countries in a different league in the region, a league they want to join. And it's not only in this region; countries all over the world, from South Africa to Brazil and Argentina, have expressed interest in developing a civilian nuclear capacity. There is also a domestic component to the sudden announcements of the various Arab nuclear plans. In Egypt, it is no coincidence that Mubarak's announcement came just a week before his party, the National Democratic Party, holds a major conference. This type of national project is likely to strengthen Mubarak in the eyes of his public, because developing a nuclear capacity is viewed very much as a prestige issue. Indeed, Mubarak's son Gamal's call last September for plans for an Egyptian nuclear program - a call that reversed a policy that shelved such plans as a result of the 1986 Chernobyl accident - also took place around the time of the party's convention. Israel is carefully monitoring all these developments, but publicly saying nothing. Privately, as well, Israel is keeping a low profile on the matter, with its stated policy being that it believes every country has the right to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, as long as those countries fulfill international obligations to prevent proliferation and on condition that everything is transparent. As one of the few countries in the world that has not signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty, Israel is obviously not going to go up on a soap-box and lobby against nuclear know-how for peaceful needs going to countries that are willing to sign the NPT. Israel has no interest in doing anything that would attract attention to its own unique nuclear status in the region. But behind the scenes, Israel is saying that it has no problem with Arab states having nuclear energy, as long as it is under tight supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and other international bodies. Israel's aim is not to keep countries like Egypt from gaining a nuclear energy capacity, but rather ensuring that everything is done according to strict international rules, regulations and supervision. The question of what would happen to this nuclear technology if, for instance, Mubarak died and Islamic radicals took power is an issue of real concern, but not one being discussed out loud.