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Nuclear Energy in a Sea of Oil


08-09-2010
English | العربية

Angus Taverner

Director- Global Affairs


Tag: Dubai Government Policy Iran Nuclear Energy UAE
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One of the international communitys primary arguments for curbing Irans nuclear ambitions has been that mastery of the full nuclear cycle enrichment to the level of fuel for energy production makes simple the enriching to weapons grade.  This act alone, short of building a single weapon the argument goes, will trigger a wave of nuclear proliferation across the Middle East.  Further, this argument goes, the ensuing nuclear rivalry across this already unstable part of the world will result inevitably in a nuclear war that would be unlikely to stay limited to the region.  This dystopian vision of where Irans actions will lead echoes the 1960s fear that letting communism win in Vietnam would topple all of Asia like a row of dominos in kids play.   Dominos can fall.  They did across the Warsaw Pact along with the collapse of the USSR.    But they did not in Asia.  The lesson is that states are not game pieces of equal size and substance and the trajectory of change is not unilinear.  
Hence the assumed domino effect of nuclear proliferation across the Middle East merits examination.  So do continuing suggestions that the development of nuclear energy programmes in a region pumping much of the worlds oil are merely a cover for darker nuclear aspirations.
First, the premise that Irans development of a nuclear weapon will automatically trigger a wave of retaliatory nuclear proliferation amongst its adversaries seems unlikely.  Though the United Kingdom and France chose to play the nuclear weapons game during the Cold War, dozens of states with the capability to join, chose not to.  Israels arsenal of nuclear weapons containing as many as 200 warheads has been quietly sitting in the hills around Jerusalem and Tel Aviv for the past 30 years with only minor criticism from its Arab neighbours until recently.  The NPT quinquennial review culminated in agreement that the Middle East should hold a nuclear conference in 2012 at which Israel should reveal the extent of his nuclear holdings and commit to joining a nuclear weapons free zone.  This NPT decision represents equally an regional intent to lay down a marker for Iran. 
Second, the implied US security guarantee that covers most of the Middle East includes nuclear retaliation as its ultimate deterrent.  Even if Tehran becomes a de facto nuclear power, as India and Pakistan did in 1998, Cold War experience suggests that Iran will remain deterred by the prospect of a retaliatory strike by either the US or Israel.  Although, a nuclear-weapon-holding Iran would try to assert its conventional military strength more boldly, the argument that this will drive nuclear proliferation across the Middle East does not hold.  All members of the region will be able to defend themselves through their economic strength as well as their normal security programs and diplomacyperhaps even cooperation for a changenot to mention the continued US security presence. 
So why are a number of Middle East states vigorously pursuing nuclear energy programmes, if not as insurance against an Iran armed with nuclear weapons?  The answer to this question seems to lie genuinely at the door of the regions long term economic development.  Countries such as Egypt and Jordan, both of which have announced nuclear development plans, face the prospect of economic stagnation unless they can reduce their reliance on expensively imported fossil fuel.  Put simply, they need cheaper energy to power their economic survival and development. 
But why should oil-rich countries such as the UAE, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia be interested in alternative energy when together they are pumping most of the worlds oil and gas?  Again put simply, the era of so-called peak oil may arrive soon.  All fossil fuels are non-renewable resources and at some stage in decades ahead the oil is likely to become sufficiently scarce that it will price itself out of the energy market.  While counter scenarios existtechnical breakthroughs to cheap energy or ways to neutralize the negative environmental impact of using oil, decision makers accept the peak oil thesis as more reliable.  Hence the world is likely to move toward alternative sources of energy, and nuclear will be in the mix.  Accordingly, it makes complete sense for the Gulf states to turn their oil wealth into developing alternative energy sources for their own futures.  Moreover, in the meantime economic prudence dictates exporting oil rather than continuing to subsidize its domestic consumption. 
In the end, the logic of strategic diplomacy toward Iran and the economic case for all the currently proposed nuclear energy programmes across the Middle Eastincluding Iransare sound.  Thus the oft-heard insistence that the regions interest in nuclear energy is primarily motivated by a felt need to keep pace with Iran in a nuclear weapons race makes little sense.  Fears for a domino effect of nuclear proliferation across the Middle East triggered by a future we have the bomb announcement from Tehran are exaggerations.  Irans nuclear ambitions are indeed troubling but the case for absolutely stopping them, whatever the cost, is not proven.  While nearly all would prefer an Iran without nuclear weapons, diplomacys mandate is to teach Iran the lessons that other nuclear states have learned:  the devices have no justifiable military utility and capitalizing on them politically is far more difficult in reality than they anticipated. 

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