Fears of a Middle Eastern nuclear arms race miss the point: including Iran, the region needs electricity, not warheads.
Demand for nuclear power is no surprise
Some Western analysts contend that a nuclear arms race could arise out of the regional surge of interest in atomic energy, as states increasingly look to establish nuclear programmes. But electricity shortages are the key to understanding the Middle East's interest in the technology, not security threats from Iran or each other. The London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) issued a report in May warning that Arab states such as Saudi Arabia, Algeria and Egypt could soon seek to match Iran's nuclear programme, including its disputed weapons development ambitions.
"If Tehran's nuclear programme is unchecked, there is reason for concern that it could, in time, prompt a regional cascade of proliferation among Iran's neighbours," it said. In particular, Saudi Arabia's "strategic calculus" could tip in favour of a nuclear arsenal should Iran acquire such weapons, the IISS added. While it is true that at least 13 Arab nations in the past year have expressed interest in developing nuclear technology, with some launching nuclear programmes, there is no evidence that weapons development is a significant motivation. In the case of Saudi Arabia, Iran's chief rival for Gulf region hegemony, the possession of nuclear weapons to deter hostile neighbours would either be superfluous or suicidal.
The point is that nuclear missiles make poor short-range weapons because of their power to inflict devastating long-term damage over wide areas. A nuclear explosion in Saudi Arabia or Iran would contaminate Gulf waters with radioactive fallout for years, if not decades, among other things depriving the region of drinking water. Saudi Arabia and its Gulf neighbours may have similar concerns about even a peaceful Iranian nuclear programme. Bushehr, the Gulf coastal site of Iran's soon-to-be commissioned first nuclear power plant, is closer to Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, Doha and Kuwait City than to Tehran. Those Arabian capitals might suffer more from a Chernobyl-style nuclear accident than the Iranian capital upwind. The fact that the Bushehr plant is being built with Russian technology is hardly reassuring.
Still, Iran desperately needs more electricity to supply its growing population and industrial base, as do all the Gulf states save Qatar, as well as most other Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) countries. Ironically, Iran is the Middle Eastern nation that arguably could reap the biggest economic and social benefits from a peaceful nuclear programme, as this would give it a real chance of parlaying its vast natural gas endowment - the world's second-biggest in terms of proven reserves - into a thriving energy export business. With copious supplies of cheap electricity from nuclear plants, Iranian gas that is currently tapped to fuel domestic thermal power plants could be redirected to enhanced oil recovery and liquefied natural gas projects, or to fill proposed gas export pipelines.
According to analysts, Iran is the only Gulf state with the potential to join Qatar as a major gas exporter. By contrast, the UAE, with plans to invest more than US$40 billion (Dh147bn) in the next five to six years in gasfield developments, processing plants and pipelines, may barely succeed in keeping its gas supply in line with soaring domestic demand. Its current plan to build 16 nuclear plants, each with 1.2 gigawatts of generating capacity, would cut about four billion cubic feet per day from domestic gas requirements to fuel thermal power plants. That would just about wipe out the UAE's current gas supply shortfall, helping it to optimise oil exports but not to export more gas.
As for North African states such as Egypt and Algeria that do export gas, their best hope for improving shaky economies is to boost those exports. For that they need nuclear power. A nuclear power programme would also make sense for Jordan, a Middle Eastern country with uranium reserves that currently imports more than 90 per cent of its energy needs. If only on grounds of the state's electricity needs and its lack of energy alternatives, a nuclear programme has also always made sense for Israel. Now that other countries in the region, including Iran, are seeing their domestic energy options become more and more constrained, they are legitimately arguing for the same access to nuclear technology that the US and other western powers have seldom challenged for Israel.
If the whole idea of a MENA region nuclear arms race seems far fetched, what is to be made of Iran's refusal to suspend its uranium enrichment programme - the touchstone for Western fears of a covert nuclear weapons programme within the Islamic Republic? Iran could import nuclear fuel just as the UAE plans to do, and therefore would not need to enrich uranium for fuel. Israel's presumed possession of nuclear weapons - something the country has never publicly acknowledged - could be part of the equation. But most likely, Tehran is seeking to impress its populace and regional allies and rivals with a demonstration of its ability to resist Western pressure.
True, the muscle-flexing exercise is holding back Iran's economic development, and so may seem illogical to outsiders, but it is consistent with the country's style of government. More importantly, it does not make Iran a nuclear proliferation threat. @Email:email@example.com