The Middle East Nuclear Picture: Peaceful Programs or Not, Cause for Concern

Nuclear politics in the Middle East have focused almost exclusively on Iran for nearly two decades. But concerns over proliferation should not be confined to the northern Gulf region. Other countries, in the Arabian Peninsula and elsewhere, have launched nuclear programs, too. Each of these is ostensibly peaceful in nature, intended for civilian purposes, and subject to international safeguards. All of them have important economic rationales.

Even more important are the political dimensions of these programs, reflecting the countries’ geopolitical imperatives and desire for prestige. And without question, there are potential military implications, which in future years may become significant if the Iran nuclear deal breaks down or an Iranian breakout effort to achieve weapons capability overturns the regional balance of power. This potential development is of special importance for Saudi Arabia’s considerations of prestige and power; in fact, the kingdom may well try to ameliorate its position by weaponizing its own nascent nuclear program.

This should be of concern to all countries of the region and certainly to the United States, whose single-minded focus on Iran has left Washington oblivious to some significant nuclear developments in other parts of the region.

Who’s Who in the Middle East Nuclear Picture

Some erstwhile nuclear contenders have dropped out of the race. In 1981, Israel bombed Iraq’s Osirak reactor, widely thought to be the wellspring of a nuclear weapons program; but nuclear concerns continued until they were settled definitively by the US-led invasion in 2003. Libya gave up its program that same year in the interest of international respectability and better relations with the Bush Administration. An Israeli airstrike in 2007 also stopped Syria’s secret efforts, aided by North Korea, at what was likely a weapons program at its al-Kibar plutonium reactor.

Today, four Arab countries—Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Jordan—are in the vanguard of the region’s push for peaceful nuclear power.

Egypt. In 2015, Egyptian President Abdel-Fatah el-Sisi and Russian President Vladimir Putin announced an agreement in which the two countries would work together to build Egypt’s first nuclear power plant at Dabaa, 184 miles from Cairo. Contracts to proceed were subsequently signed in late 2017, with delivery planned sometime in the mid-2020s. Once operational, the complex would boast four reactors, each with a capacity to generate 1,200 megawatts.

No doubt, Egypt’s requirements for new energy sources are growing. Natural gas production, which supplies 75 percent of the country’s electricity needs, has been declining steadily since the 2011 revolution, even as demand for natural gas has risen. Domestic demand for electricity is growing at about six percent annually, with a forecast shortfall of six gigawatts per year through at least 2022. The planned facilities at Dabaa are a partial answer.

Egypt’s interest in nuclear power is not new. It has wanted to develop a nuclear program since 1954 and has proceeded in fits and starts over the decades. While concerns have been raised in the past about Egypt’s intentions on the weapons front, the risk of Cairo deciding to go that route appears small today. Egypt ratified the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1981 and since then has been vocal in demanding that all states in the region—especially Israel—adhere to it. In 1990 Egypt launched an initiative to create a nuclear weapons-free zone (NWFZ) in the Middle East, largely aimed at Israel’s suspected weapons program.

Saudi Arabia. In 2011, the kingdom announced plans to build 16 nuclear reactors with Russian assistance. Riyadh has some form of nuclear cooperation agreement with at least seven countries and has also held talks with the United States to discuss cooperation on building the kingdom’s nuclear industry. Saudi Arabia hopes to generate 17 gigawatts of electricity from nuclear by 2032. The kingdom has said it wants to develop a program solely for civilian purposes and become completely self-sufficient in production of nuclear fuel through exploitation of indigenous uranium deposits.

Saudi Arabia has not, however, committed to forswearing enrichment capability. Last December, former Saudi intelligence chief Turki al-Faisal said the kingdom reserved its right to develop its own nuclear enrichment cycle, just like Iran, raising potential weapons concerns. “It’s a sovereign issue,” he told Reuters, adding, “If you look at the agreement between the P5+1 with Iran specifically it allows Iran to enrich.” Prince Turki acknowledged that the Saudi stance is inextricably linked to Middle East politics, adding that a regional Nuclear Weapons Free Zone (NWFZ) is the only sure way to put nuclear proliferation concerns to rest. But, he cautioned, “This is not going to happen overnight. You have to set a time scale for negotiations to include regional discussions between the prospective members of the zone on issues not just of nuclear, but of achieving peace in the Middle East between Israel and Palestine”—a lengthy timeframe to be sure.

United Arab Emirates. The UAE took its first steps toward a nuclear power program in 2008 to address a fast-rising demand for electricity, projected to be 40 gigawatts annually by 2020. The Korea Electric Power Corporation received a $20 billion contract to construct four APR-1, 400-megawatt reactors at Barakah in Abu Dhabi, comprising the largest single nuclear construction project in the world today. The first of these is expected to be operational this year. According to the IAEA, “the UAE government made its peaceful objectives unambiguous” and is committed to “complete operational transparency” and all appropriate safeguards.

Jordan. The Hashemite kingdom has likewise entered the nuclear power game to address domestic energy needs. The program started in 2007 with the establishment of the Committee for Nuclear Strategy, followed later that year by the creation of the Jordan Atomic Energy Commission and the Jordan Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The goal of the program was to construct enough generation capacity to supply 30 percent of the country’s electricity needs by 2030 and to permit some power exports. Since then, Jordan has entered into agreements with firms from several countries for site evaluation, feasibility studies, and so on. Two reactors, planned for delivery between 2023 and 2025, are to be built by Russia’s state corporation Rosatom at Qusayr Amra, about 37 miles east of Amman. The first plant is expected to begin operating in 2025. Jordan is a party to the major international nuclear safeguards agreements, including safeguards in connection with the NPT (1978) and an Additional Protocol (1998) granting the IAEA enhanced inspection authorities to provide assurances on both declared and possible undeclared nuclear activities.

Elsewhere in the Middle East, planning for nuclear power is not as advanced but is well underway. Morocco and Algeria are developing plans for nuclear power, while Tunisia and Qatar are considering the option. Kuwait is pondering a nuclear program for power and water desalination, but plans do not appear to be far along. Turkey, on the other hand, intends to begin construction of 4,800 megawatts of nuclear power generation capacity soon, with construction on its first plant—financed and built with Russian assistance—to begin at Akkuyu later this year. China and a French-Japan consortium are lined up to construct two others.

Why Nuclear? Why Now?

There is a persuasive case to be made that the development of nuclear power makes sense not only to meet growing demands for electricity, but for several other economic reasons. For one thing, diversification of power sources contributes to energy security and helps avoid destabilizing price fluctuations of petroleum and natural gas. For oil exporting countries such as Saudi Arabia, expansion into nuclear power conserves resources that are more profitably exported rather than used for domestic energy generation. For the UAE, nuclear energy can serve the domestic market but can itself be an exportable resource in the form of electricity (with the proper distribution network). In addition, shifting to carbon-neutral energy sources is becoming a greater policy imperative for many countries in the region worried about the effects of environmental deterioration on health and the economy.

Nevertheless, nuclear capacity is notoriously expensive to build and maintain, and abundant alternatives are at hand, especially in the Middle East.

Solar power, for one, is both plentiful and relatively inexpensive to produce, given the dramatically falling cost of installed solar systems. Morocco is building one of the world’s biggest solar facilities for less than the cost of the two nuclear reactors now under construction in Jordan. By 2020, Rabat hopes to generate 42 percent of its electricity needs from renewable energy sources—including biomass, another economically attractive alternative to nuclear—and eventually emerge as a power exporter to Europe. Wind, which, like solar, is abundant in the Arab region, is another cheap nuclear alternative. For instance, according to the Renewable Energy Organization of Iran, wind power alone has the potential to generate electrical output equivalent to 15 Bushehr reactors. Energy efficiency measures, including repair and upgrade of existing transmission infrastructure, can save as much or more electricity than can be produced by a new nuclear plant. And investments in innovation in the next generation of renewables might provide a bigger payoff overall than the billions of petrodollars currently being committed to nuclear power.

What, then, is the principal rationale behind the acquisition of nuclear power capabilities? The main answer is international prestige: since the 1950s, a nuclear power program has been seen as a signifier of a country’s technical prowess and national power—in a word, modernity. This is especially true in the developing world. While it might be argued that nuclear is an outdated 20th century technology that is not aging well, that argument does not appear to hold much sway with modernizing powers of the Middle East, for which it remains an aspirational goal.

However, geopolitics is an even more powerful factor. In a region marked by zero-sum politics, great power tensions, proxy wars, and bitter ethnic, historic, and sectarian enmities, the search for the ultimate advantage—or deterrent—is compelling. Israel’s presumed acquisition of a nuclear weapons capability in the 1960s, neither confirmed nor denied by Tel Aviv, set off warning bells about the potential for a Middle East nuclear arms race. This has not yet materialized, and every regional country that currently possesses or is in the market for a viable nuclear program has either acceded to or ratified the NPT, including Iran (but not Israel). Each insists any such program is for peaceful purposes only. But the possibility of a nuclear arms race is real, and never far from the minds of the region’s leaders, notably since Mordechai Vanunu, the Israeli nuclear technician, revealed details of the country’s nuclear program in 1986 and continues to expose “one of Israel’s greatest secrets.”

Further, Iran’s suspected acquisition of nuclear weapons or a nuclear weapons breakout capacity (a term that is easily misunderstood and subject to interpretation) could quickly push the region on a dangerous new trajectory. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) told the Council on Foreign Relations in 2015, “Not one Arab nation has felt a need to get a nuke because [of] the Israelis. All of them will tell us—to my face, anyway—if they get a nuclear capability, we’re going to match it. They, the Iranians.” Indeed, various reports have disclosed that Saudi Arabia underwrote Pakistan’s nuclear program and paid it to build and deploy nuclear weapons to the kingdom in case of a crisis with Iran. (These reports have not been substantiated.)

While Arabs may have been more occupied with Iran’s nuclear program than that of Israel over the last few years, they still consider the latter to be a long-term strategic challenge. Arab countries may not be directly threatened by Israel’s nuclear weapons today, but given the ongoing volatility in the Middle East and the enduring nature of the Arab-Israeli conflict, this could change in the future. Israel’s ambiguity about its program is matched by its refusal to accept the concept of a Middle East NWFZ, a situation with which most Arab states remain uncomfortable. Israeli leaders have insisted over the years that Israel will not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons to the Middle East—a no-first-use assurance of sorts—but this has failed to allay Arabs’ concerns or their demands for curbs to the Israeli program. Even if Israel’s alleged weapons program is not at the top of Arab strategic concerns just now, this should not be understood as tacit acceptance of its existence.

While a sophisticated nuclear program, subject to international inspection and treaty constraints, is not a quick route to weapons capability, it does create an industrial base, supplies of material, and a pool of technical expertise that could eventually lay the groundwork for a military program.

What Could Possibly Go Wrong? More Reasons to Reconsider

In addition to unchecked weapons proliferation, there are quite a few other dangers inherent in pursuing a nuclear program. Even if a country acquiesces to forswear development of its own fuel cycle and agrees to a third country supplying nuclear fuel for its reactors and removing spent fuel for disposal later on, nuclear material is vulnerable to diversion at many points in the chain of transportation, delivery, use, and re-export. This is not a theoretical concern: nuclear material was reportedly stolen from Egypt’s research reactor at Dabaa in 2012, and radioactive material was stolen from a US oilfield services company near Basra, Iraq in 2015, raising fears of a possible diversion to the so-called Islamic State. Such risks multiply exponentially in countries that have lax safety records or are subject to war, civil unrest, and terrorism.

These same conditions breed threats to nuclear facilities themselves. Though sabotage and terrorist attacks are grave breeches, the most serious risk is that nuclear facilities would be high on any strike list in a major military conflict between regional powers, presenting grave dangers to surrounding civilian populations over wide areas. In fact, something like this may already have happened: in December 2017, Houthi rebels in Yemen claimed to have struck the Barakah nuclear complex in Abu Dhabi with a ballistic missile, a report immediately denied by the UAE. But the threat is real and may, in the future, come from a variety of state and non-state sources.

Finally, the possibility of an accident remains among the most serious catastrophes that could befall any nuclear facility, as Russia’s Chernobyl meltdown in 1986 and Japan’s Fukushima Daichi disaster in 2011 amply demonstrated. While the nuclear industry has a good and improving record of safety, human error, technical malfunctions, and natural disasters pose considerable safety risks.

For the United States, A Bigger Challenge than Iran

The burgeoning of nuclear power plants in the Middle East presents an array of interrelated challenges for the United States, and Iran is just one of them. Superpower politics and proliferation concerns are the name of the game, demanding new thinking from Washington.

Demand for nuclear power serves as a vector for Russia and China—both of whom already have nuclear relationships with Tehran—to expand their influence elsewhere in the region.

Russia considers nuclear cooperation with Middle Eastern states not only an economic imperative but a diplomatic one, too—a means of deepening ties and extending its influence primarily at the expense of the United States. China also sees gold in the Middle East nuclear race; President Xi and Saudi King Salman witnessed the signing of an agreement to expand nuclear cooperation between the two countries during the king’s 2017 visit to Beijing, which could lead to the construction of Chinese nuclear power plants in the kingdom. Deals such as these often come nestled in a package of other business agreements, and as such can help Russian and Chinese businesses compete with US industries across an array of sectors. And, since most nuclear construction deals come with financing and lengthy service contracts from the supplier country, such agreements guarantee long-term financial, technical, and political influence. Russia’s deal with Egypt, for example, will cost about $30 billion and will be financed largely by a $25 billion loan from Moscow. Russia has agreed to service the reactors for the next 60 years.

Instead of competing for political and economic influence with more nuclear deals of its own, Washington could consider countering with an alternative: a strong push to sell US solar and other green power technology to the same countries that are now willing to spend massively to develop a nuclear industry. This would not only bolster US exports and technology innovation, but it would provide any country claiming it only wants a safe, peaceful, and renewable power option an easy way to prove it. The Trump Administration would likely find many willing partners in the American private sector such as Tesla, which recently scored international headlines for delivering the world’s largest lithium-ion battery to the South Australian government to help combat power shortages.

In the meantime, the United States has to take seriously the ramifications of the ever-expanding clamor for “peaceful” nuclear power and the extent to which it might be laying the groundwork for weapons proliferation. Washington must insist that any and all nuclear agreements signed by countries of the region, with the United States or others, adhere to strict non-proliferation regimes and all relevant international safeguards. In particular, the United States must strongly discourage its allies from acquiring indigenous enrichment and reprocessing capabilities. And Washington should certainly not relax its rules prohibiting uranium enrichment to encourage other countries to do nuclear business with Washington instead of Moscow or Beijing, as the White House is reportedly ready to do for Saudi Arabia.

The JCPOA and the Future—of Saudi Nuclear Weapons

Finally, Washington needs to take into account the fate of the Iran nuclear deal as it affects non-proliferation in the Middle East. As much as the Trump Administration hates the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as the deal is known, it is unquestionable that the agreement has worked to keep Iran from developing a nuclear weapons capability and is likely to do so as long as the JCPOA remains in force. It has also served to keep America’s Arab allies in check.

In fact, Saudi Arabia, and not Iran, may be the key to the future of nuclear weapons proliferation in the Middle East. In a 2017 study by the Institute for Science and International Security, the authors put the issue starkly: “…there is little reason to doubt that Saudi Arabia will more actively seek nuclear weapons capabilities, motivated by its concerns about the ending of the JCPOA’s major nuclear limitations starting after year 10 of the deal or sooner if the deal fails…With these concerns, the Kingdom is likely to seek nuclear weapons capabilities as a hedge.” A number of former Saudi officials and analysts concur with this assessment. It is reasonable to assume that a Saudi nuclear breakout would at the very least prompt others in the region that have existing nuclear programs to consider whether they should move in that direction as well.

The United States, therefore, would be advised to take a wider view of the JCPOA and consider more carefully the implications of its demise. Breaking the deal through unilateral US action would be shortsighted and potentially quite dangerous. A better alternative would be to enlist European help to extend the agreement’s timeframe and push for IAEA inspection of Iranian military facilities, not currently included in the JCPOA.

Above all, the United States must articulate its views on non-proliferation in the region in no uncertain terms—terms made plainly applicable to allies and opponents alike.