Friday, November 03, 2006

The Arab world goes nuclear

By Michael J.W. Stickings

Disturbing news from The Times:

THE SPECTRE of a nuclear race in the Middle East was raised yesterday when six Arab states announced that they were embarking on programmes to master atomic technology.

The move, which follows the failure by the West to curb Iran’s controversial nuclear programme, could see a rapid spread of nuclear reactors in one of the world’s most unstable regions, stretching from the Gulf to the Levant and into North Africa.

The countries involved were named by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) as Algeria, Egypt, Morocco and Saudi Arabia. Tunisia and the UAE have also shown interest.

All want to build civilian nuclear energy programmes, as they are permitted to under international law. But the sudden rush to nuclear power has raised suspicions that the real intention is to acquire nuclear technology which could be used for the first Arab atomic bomb.

It's hard not to view this development as inevitable. As nuclear technology becomes more available, non-nuclear states may choose to avail themselves of it. Besides, Israel is already a nuclear power. Why wouldn't Arab states want to join the club? When a useful technology is out there -- and nuclear technology, however dangerous, is certainly useful -- it is rather difficult to contain it.

The problem, of course, is that this may be as much about nuclear weaponry as about nuclear power. Given that Iran is going nuclear, and likely pursuing nuclear weaponry, the acquisition of nuclear technology seems like defensive posturing. An expert quoted in the Times article suggests that the pursuit of nuclear technology by these states is a "security hedge". They may use their would-be or budding nuclear programs as bargaining chips in future security and trade negotiations. But if they go ahead and develop nuclear weapons, they'll also have the ultimate deterrent. And that could mean a nuclear arms race in a part of the world that is already unstable. And it could also mean nuclear technology, if not actual weapons, falling into the wrong hands.

The U.S. and Europe would do well to seek to curtail this development sooner rather than later. The Bush Administration has already handled Iran and North Korea poorly, but now the U.S. in particular needs to take the lead in preventing what could be one of the gravest security threats of our time. And that means entering into serious negotiations with Tehran and, at the same time, ensuring that the Arab world knows that Israel doesn't have America's unconditional support to pursue whatever military action it likes.

The cost of failure could be devastating.

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