Dialogue Series, Environmental Studies, Regional Studies

Nuclear Question in the Middle East: Regional Perspectives

Nuclear Question in the Middle East: Regional Perspectives

On November 7, 2010, CIRS held a Working Group meeting to discuss regional perspectives related to the ongoing “Nuclear Question in the Middle East” research initiative that CIRS commenced in May 2010. The project is designed to look into nuclear proliferation concerns associated with the GCC states’ aims of establishing nuclear power capabilities in the region. Through close examination of the complex political and economic issues involved, CIRS aims to give due diligence to study of the topic.

The meeting was divided into broad thematic sections, including 1) regional security and arms control; 2) civilian nuclear energy programs; 3) Israel’s nuclear program and security in the Middle East; and 4) regional perspectives of Iran’s nuclear energy program.

The participants began by surveying the security climate across the region. They noted that the complexity of arms control and weaponization in the region is worth further in-depth study. In many cases, the countries of the Middle East have strategic alliances with various different countries and this produces complex political networks. The participants argued that what is unique about the state of security in the Middle East is that, despite always being seriously affected by foreign influence, many countries in the region have historically made strategic decisions against the advice of foreign allies. In the past, Iraq’s weapons program was closely associated with Western countries as a buffering measure against the Islamic Republic of Iran and, yet, Iraq had its own independent motivations and initiated various clandestine nuclear programs.

Further, the threat perception, they argued, was “sub-regional” in that the countries of the Middle East are more concerned with neighbors’ security programs, rather than regional ones. Morocco, for example, is less concerned with Iran and Israel’s nuclear ambitions than it is with Libya’s. Threat perceptions, therefore, are based on geographic location and proximity of security hazards, and are the basis for driving regional security policies. The participants also considered the power of nuclear ambitions in the face of non-conventional terrorist threats.

Despite tremendous pressure exerted by Western powers, many countries of the Middle East have voiced their right to pursue nuclear ambitions. Many, however, do not have the necessary capacity, infrastructure, and technological capabilities. The countries that do, such as the GCC states, have opted for rational economic strategies by seeking contracts from Asian firms to build their nuclear plants, rather than relying on the expertise of their Western allies. The strength of the Israeli lobby has meant that the United States has been discouraged from engaging in these regional GCC initiatives.

The threat from Iran is often attributed as one of the main drivers behind the GCC states’ nuclear ambitions, the participants argued. Despite this credible threat, there are various other factors that are just as influential. Issues such as energy consumption, economic stability, climate change, and the depletion of natural resources in the GCC have become of paramount importance to the establishment of nuclear energy ambitions. Further to these practical issues, notions of prestige and image-building are also key drivers for the acquisition of nuclear power in the region.

In conclusion, the participants argued that it was oil and gas prices that have caused the “nuclear renaissance” in the Middle East. The interest in nuclear programs in this case is based on nuclear power rather than on the fuel cycle and enrichment possibilities for weapons. 

Working Group Participants:

Mustafa Alani, Gulf Research Center
Salih Al Mani, King Saud University
Zahra Babar, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
Kai-Henrik Barth, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
John T. Crist, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
Nabil Fahmy, American University in Cairo
Riad Kahwaji, INEGMA
Mehran Kamrava, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
Suzi Mirgani, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
Adnan Shihab-Eldin, Adviser and Member of Kuwait National Nuclear Energy Committee (KNNEC)
Debra Shushan, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
Abdullah Toukan, Strategic Analysis and Global Risk Assessment (SAGRA)

Article by Suzi Mirgani, CIRS Publications Coordinator