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Last Updated: Monday, 25 September 2006, 12:23 GMT 13:23 UK
Concern over Middle East nuclear plans
By Paul Reynolds
World affairs correspondent, BBC News website

Gama Mubarak
Gamal Mubarak announced Egypt's nuclear power plan

Plans announced recently by Egypt and Turkey that they hope to build nuclear power plants are raising a ripple of concern about the long-term prospect of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.

"It is easy to exaggerate and it is true that these countries have a right to seek all sources of energy but it is indisputable that there is also a strategic element to this," said Mark Fitzpatrick, senior fellow in non-proliferation at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.

One of the dangers of Iran going nuclear has always been that it might provoke others. So when you see the development of nuclear power elsewhere in the region, it does raise concerns
Mark Fitzpatrick

"Having a nuclear infrastructure is the step which a country needs to accomplish if it decides to embark on the path of nuclear weapons. Pakistan took that route," he said.

According to this theory, Egypt and Turkey are worried at the failure of the United Nations to stop Iran from enriching uranium. They consider they might be left behind if Iran, despite its denials, does one day develop as a nuclear armed power.

They are therefore taking preliminary steps to protect themselves from a security point of view as well as an energy one.

"One of the dangers of Iran going nuclear has always been that it might provoke others. So when you see the development of nuclear power elsewhere in the region, it does raise concerns," said Mark Fitzpatrick.

Case for nuclear power

On the other hand, Western concerns might be seen in the Middle East as another example of advanced countries, which freely use nuclear energy and some of which have nuclear weapons, trying to hold others back.

Turkey has a good energy case for going ahead with the three plants it plans to build by 2015.

According to the CIA World Factbook, Turkey is estimated to produce 50,000 barrels of oil per day yet it consumes 700,000 barrels per day.

Egypt is oil-richer. It has reserves of some 2.7 billion barrels, according to the CIA, produces 700,000 barrels per day and is estimated to consume about 500,000 per day. It has announced plans to build one nuclear power station.

The proposal was announced by Gamal Mubarak, President Hosni Mubarak's son, and his central role in this is being taken as a sign that Gamal intends to run for the presidency after his father.

Both Turkey and Egypt have also signed up to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). This bans the further spread of nuclear weapons among member states.

Both could also argue that in a world worried about the use of fossil fuels, nuclear energy is an environmentally friendly option.

However, energy is not the only factor a country takes into account when developing nuclear energy.

There are the issues of prestige and the opportunity for domestic scientific development. Both have been played up by Iran which has managed to turn its nuclear ambition into a symbol of national ambition and progress.

Not seeking to enrich uranium

One factor calming down the strategic fears is that neither Egypt nor Turkey is talking, as Iran is, about developing an indigenous uranium enrichment capability.

No-one should simply assume that Israel would stay where it is now with its ambiguous capability if Iran becomes a nuclear power. Israeli policy is likely to change, in order to demonstrate that the country has continued strategic superiority
Professor Gerald Steinberg, Bar-Ilan University

Enriched uranium is used for the generation of nuclear power. But the same process can enrich uranium more highly and that can be used in a nuclear bomb.

Enriched uranium is widely available on the world market. Iran's insistence that it needs to carry out the enrichment itself is one of the factors behind Security Council demands that Iran suspend enrichment while talks take place on its whole programme.

Israel's possession of nuclear weapons has often prompted similar fears of a nuclear arms race. Egypt has called for a nuclear weapons-free Middle East.

However, the prospects for that appear to be further away than ever. Israel regards Iran as its principal strategic threat.

It has a policy of neither confirming nor denying its nuclear weapons capacity, saying only that it will not be the first to "introduce nuclear weapons" into the region. That ambiguous approach is going to be strained if it concludes that Iran is going for the bomb.

"No one should simply assume that Israel would stay where it is now with its ambiguous capability if Iran becomes a nuclear power," Professor Gerald Steinberg, head of the Conflict Management Programme at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv told Reuters recently.

"Israeli policy is likely to change, in order to demonstrate that the country has continued strategic superiority," he said.

Paul.Reynolds-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk


SEE ALSO
Egypt unveils nuclear power plan
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Q&A: Iran nuclear stand-off
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Egypt extends its emergency laws
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