The Nuclear Debate: The Race for Nuclear Power Capability in the Middle East Has Gained Momentum in Recent Months. as Iran Steps Up Its Enrichment Programme, in Defiance of UN Resolutions and Requests from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to Conform to Its Protocol, the Timing Invites Some Questions
De Muth, Susan, The Middle East
IN DECEMBER 2009, THE UAE ANNOUNCED THAT IT HAD awarded the $20 billion commission to build four nuclear power plants to a Korean-led consortium, Kepco. The project was green-lighted under the so-called '123 agreement' drafted under the Bush administration and signed off by President Obama in May 2009. The first of these plants is scheduled to go online in 2017.
Meanwhile, Jordan granted mining rights to France's Areva group in February 2010 with the proviso that a percentage of the uranium produced would be used to power its own nuclear power programme, with an initial plant planned for 2020. The only Arab country in the Middle East to possess significant uranium deposits (112,000 tonsU), Jordan has bilateral nuclear cooperation agreements in place with several countries, including Britain (since June 2009), and a Memorandum of Understanding with the US in the pipeline.
Responding to burgeoning regional interest, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) held its March 2010 international conference entitled 'Human Resource Development for Introducing and Expanding Nuclear Power Programmes' in Abu Dhabi--the first time it had convened in the Middle East.
Egypt--which wound down its nuclear programme in the wake of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster--rejoined the race with a March 2010 announcement that Russia would be tendering for a four-plant project, the first due to be operational by 2019. Unlike the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, Egypt already has two research reactors and a ready cadre of specialist personnel.
In mid-April 2010, Saudi Arabia announced the establishment of the King Abdullah City for Nuclear and Renewable Energy. The Kingdom hopes to have the first operational nuclear plant in the Gulf up and running by 2017 (if the UAE doesn't beat them to it). This news was highlighted as a positive development on the US-Saudi Arabian Business Council website.
Several other regional players have also indicated their nuclear power ambitions including Turkey, Kuwait, Libya, Yemen and Algeria.
The official rationale for this recent surge in enthusiasm for an energy form that was dismissed as unnecessary by the oil-and-gas-rich GCC countries until three and a half years ago is a mixture of environmental, economic and political concerns: nuclear power is marketed as a "cleaner" way to produce electricity and desalinate water (so long as there are no catastrophic accidents or leaks); OPEC countries say they want to preserve their oil reserves for export, guaranteeing the financial future for economies mostly lacking diversification; nuclear generators are perceived as more reliable in countries where outages of electricity and clean water risk fomenting domestic unrest.
There is also a wider, political agenda, which remains largely unspecified but which has much to do with Iran and, perhaps to a lesser extent, Israel.
The GCC first announced their intention to explore nuclear technology at the end of the December 2006 summit; during the same gathering, much emphasis had been placed on the threat to regional security posed by Iran's nuclear capability and a lack of confidence that it was being developed for peaceful purposes alone.
Earlier in 2006, Iranian President Ahmadinejad announced that his country had successfully enriched uranium for the first time (to 3.5%). Whilst countries who are signatories to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) are permitted to enrich fuel for civil purposes, the problem is that the technology is the same as that required to manufacture nuclear weapons. In response, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1696 demanding that Iran suspend all enrichment activity. Ahmadinejad asserted his rights as a party to the NPT and the resolution was ignored.
Meanwhile, some unanticipated side effects of the US's prolonged wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were becoming apparent: the removal of Saddam Hussein had also removed Iran's most serious rival, resetting the regional balance of power; furthermore, Iran now had significant influence over the ruling Shia elite in Iraq, many of whom had spent their years of exile in the Islamic Republic. …