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Nuclear issues in the Mediterranean


From Erzsébet N. Rózsa, Academic Director of the Hungarian Institute of International Affairs



Erzsébet N. Rózsa, Academic Director of the Hungarian Institute of International Affairs (photo ENR)
Erzsébet N. Rózsa, Academic Director of the Hungarian Institute of International Affairs (photo ENR)


The strategic relevance of the Mediterranean cannot be underestimated: a bridge that connects and a wall that separates at the same time. The institutionalization of the Euro-Mediterranean cooperation first in 1995 in the framework of the Barcelona Process or Euro-Mediterranean Partnership (EMP), then in the southern dimension of the European Neighbourhood (ENP) in 2004, and finally in the Union for the Mediterranean (2008) created several manifold bonds between the northern and the southern shores of the Mediterranean, including the dialogue between cultures and civilizations as well as hard security issues.

Nuclear energy related issues on the one hand belong to the domain of the dual-use, meaning that materials, equipment, technology, and even human knowledge can be used for both civilian and military purposes. On the other hand, both in their civilian and in their military use they can be used for political purposes and power projection.

In the Mediterranean basin within the civilian domain there are states that possess parts or the whole of the nuclear fuel cycle, mostly visible for the public in the form of nuclear power plants (e.g. France) ; there are those, which have nuclear power plants presently under construction (e.g. Turkey or Jordan); and there are those who are void of any element of the civilian nuclear industry (Morocco or Tunisia). Regarding the military use of nuclear energy there is a legally acknowledged nuclear weapon state  (France); there is a state that has never declared and never denied that it is in possession of nuclear weapons (Israel), there are states which for a shorter or longer period pursued nuclear weapons ambitions (e.g. Libya), and there are those that have never cherished such ambitions (e. g. Morocco or Tunisia). Apart from Israel, all of them are parties to the NPT.

The Mediterraean, also the theater of protracted and violent conflits

The Mediterranean, however, is not only the cradle of civilizations, but also scene of protracted and violent conflicts, among which the Arab-Israeli (Palestinian-Israeli) stands out. While on the surface this conflict has no nuclear dimension, several Arab states have sought to counterbalance the Israeli – undeclared and unacknowledged - nuclear arsenal, either politically in the different international fora, or by pursuing (or trying to pursue) military nuclear programs, which they were bound to give up. In this sense, counterbalancing included not only and necessarily military programs, but the civilian uses of nuclear energy as well, upon the understanding that a regional power has to be modern.

Arab efforts in the different international fora to pressure Israel to give up its nuclear arsenal and bring it into the fold of the NPT, however, have been numerous and unsuccessful. It was the Arab failure and sense of disappointment that in 2006 made the Secretary General of the Arab League, Amr Moussa call on all Arab states to start nuclear programs.  (Since all Arab states are parties to the NPT, this sui generis meant civilian nuclear programs.) While some six or seven Arab countries announced that they would start such programs, some with very ambitious aims, in May 2013 just one unit is under construction (in the United Arab Emirates). In Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia the nuclear programmes are still in the preparatory phase. (Not much is known at the moment of the Syrian plans of constructing a nuclear power plant by 2020.)  

The Arab efforts were finally acknowledged at the 2010 NPT Review Conference where the states parties decided to hold a conference in 2012 to push forward the Middle Eastern nuclear weapon-free zone (ME NWFZ). The zone was first proposed by Iran supported by Egypt in 1974, and the idea was expanded by former-Egyptian President Mohammad Hosni Mubarak in 1990 into a zone free of all weapons of mass destruction. The ME NWFZ, however, was and still is a prisoner of the political processes and conflicts of the region. While after its first initiation it was the Arab-Israeli conflict, which prevented the zone being realized, in the 2000s the perceived threat of an Iranian nuclear program by Israel and some Arab states made the negotiations of such a zone even more complicated. Not to mention the fact that the year 2012 was the year of presidential elections in the United States, followed by parliamentary elections in Israel in January 2013, and to be followed by presidential elections in Iran in June 2013. So while Finnish diplomat Jaakko Laajava was appointed as the facilitator of the conference, and the tentative dates in December 2012 were announced, the conference had to be indefinitely postponed. 

In the meanwhile, while the Arab League is trying to keep a unified Arab position, there are huge differences among the Arab states’ positions as to the source of the threat, i.e. what is a bigger or the real threat, the Israeli arsenal or the Iranian program. For the Arab states of the Eastern Mediterranean basin it is still the Israeli arsenal that is named in the political discourse for the public as the gravest threat. For the Gulf Arab states the Iranian nuclear program is at the top of the agenda, while the Maghrebi Arab states are far from both. 

A complexe regional dynamic and domestic political transitions

The Arab Spring of 2011 has introduced further complications: the Arab states in transition (Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria) are engaged mostly by their domestic processes, in the course of which much of their diplomats have been withdrawn and changed, including those dealing with arms control at the different international fora and organizations, thus important expertise may disappear. Those Arab states, where no drastic changes were introduced, also tend to turn inwards and try to initiate reforms. At the same time Syria’s membership in the Arab League was suspended, and later Syria’s place was taken in the Arab League summit by the opposition.  

Attention thus turning away, even if temporarily, from regional security and possibly the need of finances elsewhere, have left the Arab states aspiring to launch ambitious nuclear programs suspend or postpone nuclear investments. As mentioned before, at the moment it is only in the United Arab Emirates that a nuclear power plant is under construction in the Arab world, with other plans suspended or delayed (Egypt, Jordan, Syria).   

In a relatively new regional development, Turkey has started to build its first nuclear power plant, but the Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant is also delayed with the first unit planned to be put into operation in 2018.  

On the southern-eastern shore of the Mediterranean, therefore, it is not only energy demands and financial capabilities that define nuclear developments, but also (or rather) a most complex regional dynamic and domestic political transitions. Interestingly, it seems that nuclear accidents or catastrophes, such as Chernobyl or Fukushima, have no impact at all.

Erzsébet N. Rózsa


Wednesday, May 29th 2013



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