Atomic: Why are France and America Helping the Mideast Go Nuclear
Forty years after France's sale of "peaceful" nuclear technology to Saddam Hussein, the atomic twinkle in the Élysée's eyes is again on the Middle East. France has offered civilian nuclear cooperation to Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Jordan and Morocco. During this week's visit to the region, President Nicolas Sarkozy made similar proposals to the Gulf states and signed a cooperation deal with the United Arab Emirates, a first step in building a reactor for an estimated €6 billion.
Mr. Sarkozy is at pains to sell his nuclear agenda as more than just a money-making proposition. Rather than increasing the military risks in the region, the power of the atom will miraculously bring peace—or so the French president claims. Tell "a billion Muslims across the world that they don't have the right to civilian nuclear energy when they have no more petrol or gas," Mr. Sarkozy said last summer when he first developed this theory. Giving Muslim states nuclear power, he insists, is critical to prevent "a conflict between Islam and the West," to help Muslim states fend off "underdevelopment," and to prevent an "explosion of terrorism." The multibillion-euro deals are sold as hard-headed French altruism. But that's nonsense. And this nuclear diplomacy brings grave dangers.
To suggest that promoting nuclear power is somehow key to any country's economic development, let alone to those of the oil- and gas-rich Middle East, is simply ludicrous. That's why the U.S. and its allies complained—and rightly—that Russia's plan to build the Iranian nuclear reactor at Bushehr isn't motivated by economic or energy considerations.
Iran is awash with natural gas, a relatively clean-burning fuel that can produce electricity far cheaper than nuclear power plants ever could. Nearly all of its Middle Eastern neighbors sit on significant gas reserves or could have ready access to them through pipelines. Nuclear power, by contrast, is so costly that even in advanced economies it needs massive government subsidies and guarantees. True, many Middle Eastern states currently suffer from a shortage of natural gas. But this supply squeeze could be overcome relatively quickly once Middle Eastern states price electricity at market rates, develop their gas fields more fully and run pipelines to states with more gas on tap. This, though, would mean raising subsidized domestic energy prices, costly investments and solving outstanding border disputes.
Even if it were true that the transfer of nuclear technology had a hitherto unknown effect on economic development, it would hardly prevent an "explosion of terrorism." There is no observable link between Middle Eastern economic development and radicalism. The recent oil-price boom has led to a significant rise in per capita income, but the measures of political freedom moderation (check out the Freedom House index released yesterday) have either remained static or gone south.
Besides, violent Islamic organizations tend to pick their leaders not from the huddled masses, but the middle and upper classes. Osama bin Laden may hide in caves, but he comes from a rich Saudi family. The Muslim Brotherhood is controlled not by the poor, but by well-heeled Egyptian engineers. It is economic and political freedom rather than development that may serve as antidote to Islamic radicalism. Improving living standards is in everyone's interest for humanitarian reasons. But let's not fool ourselves into believing that "economic development" as such will neutralize the jihadis.
Behind closed doors one hears another rationale for the nuclear export: to spook Tehran. The modus operandi here is to fight Iran's "peaceful" nuclear power with Sunni nuclear equivalents. That's presumably the reason why Washington is offering nuclear-power cooperation agreements to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey and Jordan. French and American officials argue that these power plants won't be built any time soon. In the meantime, the announcement of such power plant programs should give the Iranians second thoughts, they argue.
Moscow, though, is more in a rush to actually build reactors in the region. It has already offered to do so for Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Algeria and Libya and has completed a power plant and provided extensive nuclear training for Iran. And the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have plenty of cash to quickly seal the deal. But don't Middle Eastern states have the right to develop peaceful nuclear energy? If it's really peaceful, that's certainly true. The problem is that past experience in the region shows that this technology inevitably gets militarized. We know that previous "civilian" nuclear programs in Iraq, Israel, Egypt, Iran, Algeria and Libya all served as covers for suspect nuclear activities. There is no reliable way to detect covert nuclear fuel-making once a country has a full-fledged "civilian" program. Even without a secret program, the normal fuel produced in civilian nuclear power plants could be used to produce scores of crude nuclear bombs a year. The popular notion, therefore, that inspectors could reliably detect possible military diversions early enough to prevent proliferation is hope ignoring reality.
To assert that any state, including those in the war-torn Middle East, have a God-given right to build and operate nuclear reactors is to condemn the region to a nuclear 1914. We've had a small taste of what's in store. Israel bombed the French-built Iraqi Osiraq reactor in 1981 and recently raided what were probably nuclear installations in Syria. Iraq bombed the Bushehr reactor during the Iran-Iraq war during the 1980s. With more nuclear programs in more Middle Eastern states, history is likely to explosively repeat itself.
Surely France, the U.S. and Russia can and should do better than this. A good start would be for these three countries to rethink how best to help develop energy options for the Middle East without going nuclear.