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Voices of Tomorrow

Promoting nuclear security in the Middle East

1 November 2017
Daniel Karr

Daniel Karr

Daniel Karr is an intern with the Stimson Center’s WMD, Nonproliferation, and Security program. He is also an MA candidate in Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program.

At the 2016 Nuclear Security Summit, US National Security Advisor Susan E. Rice proudly announced that 102 nations had adopted the Amendment to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material, which requires ratifying states to take concrete steps to safeguard their nuclear material and facilities. With the votes needed for the agreement to enter into force, the world gained new support for strengthening physical defenses against terrorism.

While the amendment was an important achievement in promoting security in nuclear facilities, vulnerabilities persist in countries in the Middle East—especially in Iran and Turkey, which regularly grapple with extremist groups. Despite continuing regional rivalries between Middle Eastern governments, a cooperative effort led by experts from the nuclear industry can help mitigate the threat that terrorism poses to the security of nuclear power plants.

Worries in Iran. This past June, the Islamic State claimed responsibility for an attack in Tehran that killed at least 17 people. Iran arrested dozens of militants linked to the attack, but attacks may persist or even increase as the Islamic State loses territory in Iraq and Syria and returns to traditional insurgency tactics.

With the Bushehr nuclear reactor and other nuclear facilities operational in Iran, such attacks are worrisome, especially as Iran has not yet ratified the Amendment to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material or demonstrated strong nuclear security practices more broadly. In its 2016 sabotage ranking, which measures how well countries defend their nuclear facilities against sabotage, the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) ranked Iran 44th out of 45 countries that possess weapons usable material. And on its threat index, NTI ranked Iran 23rd out of 24 counties with more than one kilogram of weapons usable material. (In both cases, only North Korea ranked lower.)

Trouble in Turkey. Similarly, the abundance of terror groups in Turkey could increase the risk of an attack on one of its future nuclear power plants. The Russian state-owned corporation Rosatom is scheduled to begin construction on Turkey’s first nuclear power plant, located at the Akkuyu site, in 2018, and Turkey has plans to build two more plants. A variety of violent extremist groups have carried out attacks on Turkish soil in recent decades, but the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (the PKK) and Al Qaeda, in particular, pose the greatest threats to Turkey’s nuclear security. The PKK attacked Turkey’s critical infrastructure in the past, and Al Qaeda, which has a long-standing interest in acquiring nuclear material, has carried out multiple attacks in Turkey since 2003. Al Qaeda’s presence in Syria is particularly ominous, given the Akkuyu plant’s proximity to the Syrian border. In July, Al Qaeda seized a large swath of territory in Syria’s northwest, including the critical Bab al Hawa border crossing on the Turkish border. The group could use its control of key border areas to smuggle fighters into Turkey to carry out attacks or to smuggle stolen nuclear material from Turkey into Syria.

Unlike Iran, Turkey has ratified both the Amendment to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material and the International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism. However, Turkey’s newcomer status and its continuous struggle against terrorism suggest that concrete steps should be taken to protect facilities, including against insider threats. For instance, it is unclear what the build-own-operate partnership with Russia has offered or will continue to provide in terms of nuclear security training to Turkish staff at the Akkuyu site.

Given the political tension and uncertain security environment in the region, Turkey and Iran cannot afford a lax nuclear security infrastructure and culture. While it is extremely difficult for non-state actors to get their hands on nuclear material—and most terrorist groups resort to easier, conventional methods to carry out their attacks—nuclear terrorism is not an imaginary concern. The Islamic State has attempted to recruit scientists in the past, and in 2014 Belgian officials discovered that a former nuclear plant employee died fighting for the Islamic State in Syria five years after he passed a background investigation to work at the facility.

Existing institutions. It is important to note that a diverse range of Middle Eastern countries—including Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE)—could join Iran in producing nuclear power in the next 25 years. Yet large nuclear security gaps exist between countries like Iran and the UAE, suggesting there is an opportunity to exchange best practices and information regarding nuclear security in the Middle East.

There are several regional and multilateral institutions that promote nuclear security and encourage information sharing in the Middle East. The IAEA supports collaboration, education, and research through its International Nuclear Security Education Network (INSEN) and the International Network for Nuclear Security Training and Support Centres. These networks partner with academic institutions and government bodies to advance nuclear security around the world, including in the Middle East. Along these lines, the UAE last year hosted the Arab Nuclear Detection and Response Exercise in partnership with several international organizations to improve regional responses to nuclear threats.

Within the region, the Amman-based Middle East Scientific Institute for Security (MESIS) provides a forum for scientists in the region to swap best practices on governing chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear material. The Gulf Nuclear Energy Infrastructure Institute in Abu Dhabi also offers education for experts in the region on nuclear security, safety, and safeguards.

New initiatives. While these existing institutions have helped states in the Middle East improve nuclear security, additional steps must be taken to prevent a terrorist attack on a nuclear power plant. Any new initiative should aim to follow two broad principles:

First, future dialogue and cooperation should include countries such as Iran and Turkey, which have clashed with their neighbors due to regional rivalries. Sound and consistent nuclear security practices are needed across the region because if an extremist group successfully sabotages a power plant anywhere in the Middle East, the ramifications will be felt throughout the region and the world. The foundation of future dialogues should build off existing multilateral initiatives such as INSEN, or regional programs like MESIS. Engaging with a rival such as Iran will be a serious obstacle for many countries in the region, but the need for a coherent nuclear security strategy should compel states to compartmentalize their differences and focus on their common interests.

Second, and most important, although regional tensions could inhibit dialogue between governments, cooperation is more likely if experts from the nuclear power industry and academia, rather than state leaders, spearhead regional outreach. Oman, which has mediated a range of dialogues, including the Iran nuclear deal negotiations and captive exchanges between Iran and the United States, could initiate next steps in forming a Track II dialogue—a style of diplomacy in which individuals outside of government take the lead. Although Oman does not have its own nuclear power program, strengthening nuclear security in the region is in Oman’s interest, given its proximity to Iran and the UAE, which plans to begin producing nuclear power in 2018.

Regardless of what form cooperation takes, experts from outside government have the flexibility to work together in ways that governments cannot. The Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East, or SESAME, is an international center that brings together scientists from across the Middle East—including from Iran, Palestine, and Israel—to encourage scientific innovation in the region. This initiative, which began in 2004, shows that despite rivalries between states, experts can work together to benefit the common good. As one Iranian scientist from SESAME put it: “Science is different from politics.”