Analysis: The risky reality of new nuclear programs

One of the greatest risks in Iran's apparent drive to acquire nuclear capability is that it will spark proliferation.

Iran Nuclear 224.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Iran Nuclear 224.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
'The Jerusalem Post' reported on Monday that the Gulf states are looking into establishing "a common program in the area of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes." Israeli officials said the move had been expected as Sunni countries in the Persian Gulf look for a hedge against a Shi'ite Iran that is pressing ahead with its nuclear program. This article examines the impact Iran's nuclear drive is having on countries throughout the region. One of the greatest risks associated with Iran's apparent drive to acquire nuclear weapons capability is that it will spark further nuclear proliferation in the region. According to recent reports, six new states in the Middle East are considering developing nuclear programs - the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has named Algeria, Egypt, Morocco and Saudi Arabia and noted that Tunisia and the United Arab Emirates have also shown interest in this regard - which seems to suggest that the risk is now becoming a reality. In fact, these states want to proceed down a path that could prove to be very similar to the one taken by Iran. They have expressed their desire to develop legitimate civilian nuclear programs, but the case against Iran today hinges on the dangerously close relationship between civilian and military nuclear programs: a civilian program can be used as a cover for or forerunner of a military program. The prospect of additional states exploiting the weakness of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty - which allows for the development of potentially problematic civilian programs - is unsettling to say the least. And the fact that six states have expressed such interest at the same time raises strong suspicions that this is a reaction to the perceived danger of a nuclear-capable Iran and may be tied to plans to develop an Arab nuclear bomb. While these are very serious concerns, it is far from clear whether these states have really made a decision to go nuclear. At this early stage, they may well want to create the impression that they will not remain on the sidelines in the face of Iran's challenge, but there are no clear indications that they (individually or collectively) have made up their minds to embark on the same path as Iran. For example, Egypt, one of the more serious potential proliferators, is undoubtedly most troubled by the prospect of Iran becoming a nuclear state and has begun to voice its concerns more openly than in the past. Moreover, some statements made by Egyptian officials working in the nuclear realm in recent years have established that Egypt regards civilian nuclear technology as something that can later be applied to a military program, if a decision to do so is taken. But while Egypt certainly wants to signal its potential capabilities, it is less likely at this stage to move in the direction of nuclear weapons development. Egypt is not talking about an indigenous uranium enrichment capability and it remains a major advocate of nonproliferation efforts in the Middle East. Moreover, through the global nuclear energy partnership (GNEP) launched in early 2006, the US has been encouraging states in the direction of nuclear energy programs, and some argue that this may help explain Egypt's interest, especially as US State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack said last month that the US had no objection to Egypt's nuclear program. In Morocco there are also contradictory signals which make it difficult to support a conclusion that this state is interested in achieving a military capability. Morocco has reportedly made plans to develop a nuclear program but it has also joined a US-led effort to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction - the first North African country to do so. There are other indications of an emerging desire for coordination and cooperation among moderate Arab states as a means of confronting the negative implications of Iran's nuclear ambitions. In late October, three Gulf states joined others in a day-long exercise in the Persian Gulf, in which they practiced intercepting and searching ships suspected of trafficking in unconventional weapons. The exercise was carried out under the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), a US-led nonproliferation initiative. This was the first such exercise to take place in the Persian Gulf (near Bahrain, just across the Gulf from Iran), and it signaled to Iran that its neighbors will not stand idly by while it develops nuclear weapons. Regional states can pursue two different routes in attempting to confront Iran's nuclear ambitions: they can participate in arms control efforts geared to enhancing their regional security, or they can attempt to join the nuclear club. In light of failing international efforts to stop Iran, these states appear to be pursuing both avenues and it is not clear which they will ultimately choose, nor is it surprising that they want to keep their options open. While they would like to participate in efforts to stop Iran, they feel that they can not risk being left on the sidelines if all efforts to stop or curb Iran ultimately fail. Enhancing arms control efforts and encouraging regional security dialogue could be critical for lowering the motivation of states to strive for their own nuclear options. Creating frameworks within which their security concerns can be raised, recognized and addressed would be an important first stage. Initial agreement to cooperate in areas of clear mutual concern is already on the agenda, as evidenced by the PSI exercise. It is also underscored by a meeting that was held in Aqaba in late September in which Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) head Yuval Diskin, and heads of intelligence services from Jordan, Egypt, and two states in the Persian Gulf all took part. At the meeting, Jordan expressed its willingness to host meetings geared to advancing the peace process and fighting terrorism. Significantly, the need to coordinate and cooperate among all sides and exchange information among them in order to fight terror in the region was emphasized. Creating alternative routes for states to enhance their mutual security could help them resist the conclusion that the only way to ensure their individual security in the face of a nuclear Iran is to develop their own nuclear bomb. Given that most states will need a lot of time to acquire a military nuclear capability, their incentive to explore alternative routes is likely to be high. Reprinted with permission from INSS Insight, published by The Institute for National Security Studies, Tel Aviv University Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies (JCSS). The author is the director of the Arms Control and Regional Security Project at JCSS.