Toward an honest Middle East nonproliferation policy

By Victor Gilinsky, Henry Sokolski | September 25, 2020

Mike Pompeo and Mohammed bin Salman US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meets with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, 2019. Photo credit: Public domain.

With the recent outing of Riyadh’s covert nuclear collaboration with Beijing, the dominos of Middle East proliferation are set to tumble. Iran continues to build up a stockpile of enriched uranium, purportedly for nuclear reactor fuel but possibly for bombs, and the Saudis, Turks, and Egyptians seem poised to follow. This can be blocked, but only if the United States sidelines these countries’ plans to enrich uranium or reprocess spent fuel—steps that will give them the capability to produce fissile material for nuclear weapons—and encourages them to invest in more economical non-nuclear alternatives to proliferation-risky reactors.

The issue will soon bubble up. Agreements for US nuclear cooperation with Egypt and Turkey are due to be renewed in the next couple of years. Would-be nuclear exporters see the Middle East as the mother lode of nuclear sales. Unfortunately, it also is a nuclear weapons breeding ground.

Turkish President Erdogan has said, “Some countries have missiles with nuclear warheads…. But [they tell us] we can’t have them. This, I cannot accept.” Meanwhile, US officials are still negotiating over nonproliferation rules with the Saudis, whose effective ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, promised to get a bomb as soon as Iran did. Knowing what the crown prince is capable of, he could also mean before Iran does.

The United States should be tightening its nonproliferation standards, promoting a nuclear enrichment and reprocessing free zone stretching from Algeria to Iran, and encouraging these states to stop building more reactors.

Easier said than done, but that should be the goal. The key is honesty. The Middle East is ideal for using ever cheaper solar energy (both photovoltaic and concentrated, which together could afford round-the-clock power). Meanwhile, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Israel, Iran, and the United Arab Emirates keep finding significant reserves of natural gas in addition to the massive reserves already on tap. Nuclear energy in the Middle East makes no economic sense, not anymore.

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Aside from exploiting solar energy and gas, connecting electrical grids and pipelines across countries would also help service the region’s energy demand. There are already a number of such projects underway and there are more large opportunities. For example, a deal to connect Iraq’s electricity grids to the Gulf Cooperation Council grid will help Baghdad with its chronic electricity shortage (and, of course, lessen its energy dependence on Iran). Israel’s recent peace agreements with the United Arab Emirates and other Arab states will allow them to reap new benefits from Israel’s Red-Sea-to-Mediterranean pipeline, since it offers a cheaper oil route than the Suez Canal. As more gas is found in the region, connecting gas pipelines will increase energy security as well as profits.

At the same time, civilian nuclear power plants can be turned to military use, and there is no adequate protection against that. North Korea kicked out the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors in 2003 and kept all its facilities. The rest is history. The 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran is a good indication that the principal nuclear powers do not deem routine IAEA inspections to be adequate to guard civilian nuclear facilities against diversion to military use. To be reasonably sure Iran is not making a bomb, Western negotiators imposed a regime far tighter than in any other country and one that is likely unacceptable as a regular scheme for all countries. The anti-Iran forces, though, say that even this is not enough—and Saudi Arabia already is presuming.

This suggests that trying to control proliferation by promoting nuclear exports and then concocting a patchwork of à la carte nonproliferation conditions and sanctions is the wrong way to go. On enriching, America’s agreement with the United Arab Emirates requires that it legally forswear enriching uranium and reprocessing entirely and adopt intrusive international nuclear inspections. Yet, in 2015, Washington agreed to allow Iran to enrich in a limited fashion. Meanwhile, US agreements with Turkey and Egypt allow those countries to enrich in an unlimited manner so long as they do not use US–origin materials. The proposed agreement with Saudi Arabia, if there is one, promises to be some new kludge of these three.

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The United States needs to simplify. The nuclear industry is never going to build large reactors again in the United States; they’re simply too expensive (nor do small reactors yet look very promising). So why try and build them abroad? Why not level with potential Middle Eastern customers and sway them to put new nuclear builds aside? To do so would have the advantage of being an honest policy.

Only honesty has a chance of influencing energy officials throughout the Middle East, from Iran to Saudi Arabia, many of whom still genuinely believe what the United States told them years ago—that nuclear is the energy source of the future. Unfortunately, because of entrenched interests, there is a lag between the assumptions guiding governments on technical issues and the latest market and industrial trends. This applies especially to the reception of non-traditional power solutions not only in Middle East bureaucracies, but also in the US Energy and State Departments.

So long as policy makers keep pretending nuclear power is the future, or an important part of it, they will only encourage states in the Middle East to build more “peaceful” nuclear options of their own. If we want to stop the bomb from spreading any further, this pretense has got to stop.

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