Thursday, 31 May 2012

The dangerous spread of nuclear projects in the Middle East

The Jordanian parliament voted May 30 to suspend development of the country's first nuclear reactor and uranium-mining activities following misleading claims by officials about the project’s financing, DPA reported. Economic feasibility studies will be conducted before the project can move forward. "It is wrong to stop such a national nuclear project," government deputy Khalil Attiyeh remarked, suggesting that Jordan will continue to develop its nuclear program.

It is unlikely that Amman intends to wield their future nuclear capability in as belligerent a way as Tehran, but the development of the reactor is worth analysing from the perspective of how Middle Eastern countries are responding to Iranian nuclear ambitions.

Jordan’s ambition to develop a nuclear capability for energy generation is noteworthy given the current trends in the greater Middle-East. For a relatively large Arab country, ruled by a monarchy, Jordan has managed to maintain stability as the so-called Arab Spring continues to provoke unrest throughout the region.

By no means an historically contentious objector, Amman has nevertheless declined to confront the recent violence in Syria and rejected Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) requests to stage in Jordan an Arab intervention in Syria. Jordanian King Abdullah II is trying to balance domestic peace and the fulfilment of Jordan’s responsibilities as a GCC member. The royal family faces an existential crisis similar to Saudi Arabia’s if the internal equilibrium changes negatively and its energy problems worsen. Jordanians could begin to demand revolution.

The creation of a nuclear plant in Jordan is geopolitically important for Amman. Jordan relies heavily on Egyptian pipelines to deliver natural gas for much of its energy. But the frequency of pipeline attacks on the Egyptian side of the border, delaying gas deliveries, is compelling Amman to advance alternate energy projects.

More than 80 percent of Jordan’s electricity is generated from this imported Egyptian natural gas, and even though the sun shines roughly 95 percent of the year in Jordan there is little sign of renewable solar energy sources coming on-line to replace the natural gas. Also, making King Abdullah’s plans for a nuclear reactor sensible and timely, approximately 65,000 tons of naturally occurring uranium ore was discovered near the Amman in 2007.

Then there are the foreign policy obstacles. Iran and the P-5+1 countries will meet in Moscow on June 18-19 to try to conclude negotiations concerning Iran's nuclear program, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said May 24. Ms Ashton said both parties want progress but harbour substantial differences.

The fears among the P 5+1 centre around a potential tip in the region’s power balance towards Tehran if its nuclear goals are reached. There is growing assurance in Riyadh also that if Iran attains a nuclear weapon, they will fast-track a process to build their own bomb.

From the international community's perspective, stopping Iran from developing a nuclear weapon should ensure greater stability in the region and roll back the advancing Iranian influence. Removing the threat of a nuclear Iran retains what’s left of the strategic power balance in the region, even though Iranian conventional forces are currently superior in quality and size than most Middle Eastern counties. 

Iran has indicated on multiple occasions it intends to intimidate its neighbours with whatever nuclear weapon it devises. Saudi Arabia’s tight control of the petroleum market is an economic and national threat to the Islamic Republic. Since Iran receives much of its income from the sale of its abundant reserves of light crude oil, increased manipulation over the oil market is a desirable strategy for Tehran.

Altering the balance of power towards Iran and gaining greater control of the Persian Gulf turns out to be a geopolitical imperative for the Islamic Republic. If it can get hold of a nuclear weapon it would all but ensure that the oil-rich region is controlled by Tehran. Understandably, Saudi Arabia wants to avoid this scenario. Riyadh is probably not playing rhetorical games by threatening to build its own weapon either. 

What Riyadh is suggesting is nothing short of a dangerous arms race. This is the real danger of Middle Eastern nuclear ambitions. Saudi Arabia is probably the best situated nation financially to pursue such a project, but the race wouldn’t end there. It is unlikely that other Arab countries will sit idly by as their neighbours proliferate such weapons.

While Israel already possesses deliverable nuclear weapons, it has never deployed them in anger. Given the small size of Israel the tactical calculation of Israeli generals may lean towards pre-emptive targeting of the technology it it spreads any further in the region.

The Arab history of violence towards Israel predicts they will stamp out any emerging nuclear threats, a practice Israel excels at. Potential Israeli military plans to strike Iranian nuclear sites are fairly credible given how Israel has dealt with the nuclear ambitions of its neighbours in the past. But military strikes always have the potential to spiral out of control; just how fast and destructive an escalation would be if multiple Middle Eastern countries possess nuclear weapons is unknown.

It hasn't reached that point yet though. Jordan is not planning for nuclear energy with the ultimate result of a weapon in mind. The development of its program is so far strictly civilian. There is no guaranteeing however that the technology will not be enhanced to create a weapon in the future. With the US military no longer the dominant force in the Middle East, many of these states are relying less on unpredictable US power projection and taking direct measures to protect themselves militarily.

The strategy of mutually-assured destruction (MAD), the Cold War’s central strategic legacy, is unlikely to apply in the Middle East. Because rather than using their weapons on each other, the Arab regimes are more likely to bully weaker countries into submission to leverage their own national interests.

The P 5+1 discussions must bear this in mind. They need to treat all Middle Eastern nation's nuclear ambitions the same. Nuclear proliferation is not just a strategy designed to keep the so-called Nuclear Club doors firmly shut. Keeping unstable countries from attaining such weapons is an imperative for global security, therefore limiting nuclear technology in stable states is also a necessity. 

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