Why there won't be a 'nuclear free Middle East' in your lifetime or mineA month-long conference on strengthening the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty will open on Monday in New York. Ironically, the first speaker will be the man most responsible for weakening it: Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Protocol dictates that because he is the only head of state that is heading his country's delegation, he is the first to speak.
Ahmadinejad is expected to try to shift the focus away from Iran's nuclear weapons program to allegations that Israel has nuclear weapons and - inconveniently for Ahamdinejad - has had them for nearly fifty years. In that, Ahmadinejad will have support from Egypt, which is sometimes an Iranian rival, which is seeking a nuclear free zone in the Middle East.
The United States, which is the only World power ever to use nuclear weapons, is seeking to avoid a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. It is doing so by offering nuclear power technology to countries who agree to foresake the development of nuclear weapons.
Instead, the administration is trying to entice Middle Eastern states out of enriching uranium for reactor fuel and later scavenging spent fuel for plutonium, a step known as reprocessing. Both are allowed by the treaty, and both can become clandestine means of making atom-bomb fuel. Instead, the countries would buy the fuel from international suppliers, reducing the chance of conversion to bomb-grade material.Why is the oil-rich Persian Gulf suddenly interested in nuclear power? Supposedly because of the economics of oil:
“The less enrichment and reprocessing the better,” Ms. Tauscher said.
David A. Kay, a nuclear specialist who led the fruitless search for unconventional arms in Iraq, applauded the strategy. “It’s an attempt to close up the holes in the N.P.T.,” he said in an interview. “Equally, if not more so, it’s an attempt to isolate the Iranians.”
The gulf nation furthest down the atomic road — and the one that the United States calls the “gold standard” for nonproliferation — is the United Arab Emirates.
In April 2008, the Emirates signed a tentative agreement with the Bush administration to give up enrichment and reprocessing in exchange for access to the global market in nuclear technologies. A year later, the Emirates signed an accord that gave the International Atomic Energy Agency the right to search nuclear-related facilities throughout the country. Iran has withdrawn its agreement to the same accord.
The Obama White House endorsed the Bush administration accord and sent it to Congress, which approved it last summer. On Dec. 17, the Emirates and the United States signed an agreement that made it legal to sell advanced nuclear technology to the country.
Ten days later, the Emirates awarded a South Korean company the contract to build four 1,400-megawatt reactors — quite large by industry standards. They are to begin making power between 2017 and 2020.
The reactors are to be hardened against military and terrorist strikes. The Emirates has said nothing publicly, though, about whether it plans to set up antiaircraft or antimissile batteries, as Israel has done around its Dimona reactor and Iran around Bushehr.
When prices are high, gulf countries would prefer to sell their oil at great profit rather than burn it for power. A study done by the International Atomic Energy Agency and a group of gulf states concluded that nuclear power made sense for the region when the price of oil exceeded $50 a barrel. Today it is above $80, and with the world economy gradually recovering, many expect it to go higher.Of course, the amount of oil these countries use for themselves is a small fraction of what they export. Unfortunately, that's a fact the Times fails to mention.
The idea of making the Middle East a nuclear free zone is a non-starter. Israel - with American backing - takes the position that it is more than willing to see the Middle East become a nuclear free zone but only after there are peace treaties between it and other countries in the region, and after the Arab countries (for example, Syria and Iran) give up their other weapons of mass destruction.
Speaking to reporters Friday, Ellen Tauscher, undersecretary of state for international security and arms control, said the United States supports in principle the long-term goal of a nuclear-free Middle East.And of course, that's not likely to happen anytime soon.
But she said that a conference on this issue should follow a comprehensive peace in the region and should address weapons of mass destruction programs in addition to nuclear weapons.
"We believe that this is a very worthy goal, something that we have supported since 1995," Ms. Tauscher said. "But we are concerned that the conditions are not right. And unless all members of the region participate, which would be unlikely unless there is a comprehensive peace plan that is being accepted and worked on, then you couldn't have the conference that would achieve what we are all looking to achieve, which is for the region to make its own decisions and come together and find a way to do that."
Ms. Tauscher's position is substantively no different from the secret Israeli strategic doctrine known as the "long corridor," which establishes conditions — such as peace agreements with its neighbors — for Israel to relinquish its nuclear weapons.
In an attempt to embarrass Israel, the Egyptians will push this week for a special envoy to be named to coordinate negotiations over a nuclear free Middle East. But that's not likely to put an end to the Middle East nuclear arms race that has been touched off by Iran. Every country in the region other than Lebanon has plans to build nuclear power plants. Many of them could end up weaponizing. As former US Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton writes in a piece in the Wall Street Journal over the weekend, if Iran obtains nuclear weapons, other countries in the Middle East will also seek them.
Even if containment and deterrence might be more successful against Iran than just suggested, nuclear proliferation doesn't stop with Tehran. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey and perhaps others will surely seek, and very swiftly, their own nuclear weapons in response. Thus, we would imminently face a multipolar nuclear Middle East waiting only for someone to launch first or transfer weapons to terrorists. Ironically, such an attack might well involve Israel only as an innocent bystander, at least initially.Iran becoming a nuclear power makes a nuclear free Middle East far less likely than would otherwise be the case. It raises the stakes by inducing other countries to seek nuclear weapons. In the next post, I'll discuss what needs to be done to stop Iran.
What could go wrong?