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A swarm of nuclear deals in the Middle East and Asia

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Many countries in the Middle East, Central Asia, South Asia, and North Africa already have nuclear programs or are planning to set up new ones with the help of the US, Russia, Europe, or China.

A great deal of attention has been paid to Iran’s nuclear program, with the UN Security Council making special demands on that country’s research and development that fall outside of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). There are a number of in depth articles on this issue currently available, yet not as much is at hand when it comes to a comprehensive review of the proliferation of nuclear technology in the wider region. I will here briefly outline the various nuclear deals and programs in that large yet interrelated swath of territory spanning two continents.

Iran’s desires for nuclear energy began in the late 1950s, under the now deposed Shah, and kicked into full gear with Western help in the early 1970s under US president Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace program. The Iranian revolution put an end to this cooperation in 1979, but, in the 1990s, an independent nuclear program was revived under the Islamic government. (Read about some of this history at the Council on Foreign Relations).

Some of the criticism of the UN Security Council’s barriers in place against Iran’s nuclear program touch on the fact that many of the same opposing countries are actively supporting the expansion of existing programs and the creation of new ones throughout neighbouring regions. Furthermore, Iran is a signatory of the NPT, giving it the right to a civilian nuclear program. The opposition to Iran’s efforts seem mainly based on the assumption that that country seeks to build nuclear weapons and that the presence of a civilian program enables and facilitates a military one. In this case, the proliferation of internationally supported nuclear programs throughout the region raises the question of why other countries might be exempt from similar concern. Perhaps it is believed that the spread of at least civilian technology is inevitable over the medium to long term and that participation in these country’s programs will help mitigate perceived and real threats as well as allow more direct supervision and influence over the programs’ establishment.


Iran’s north western neighbour plans to build a new power plant starting April 1, 2010. The new plant is meant to replace the existing 33 year-old Soviet era Metsamor nuclear power plant that is to be shut down in 2016. The new plant is supposed to generate twice or more energy than its predecessor, enough for Armenia to export electricity to other countries.

Turkey, a NATO member, has been in talks with Armenia to cooperate on the construction of the new plant. This is mainly a political move on Turkey’s part, supported by the current US administration under president Barack Obama. Armenia is close to Russia and bitter rivals with Western-leaning neighbouring Azerbaijan. Though it is very unlikely that Turkey would indeed become involved in the program, the fact that they’re talking about it is a diplomatic measure that may well be used to leverage Armenia away from an unmitigated pro-Russia stance.


Turkey has no nuclear power plants. This makes it even more unlikely that they would get involved in an Armenian program, and supports the notion that Turkey is using nuclear talks to forward NATO’s political aims in the region.

Turkey, however, has expressed plans to build two power plants in the near future (each about the size of the Armenian one). (1)

Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)

The GCC officially expressed its desire to seek a civilian nuclear program after its December 2006 summit. The GCC is composed of the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, and Oman.

In 2007, the GCC asked for help from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in developing a civilian nuclear program and has since had some positive response from the energy agency.

The US, under president George W. Bush, has signed nuclear cooperation agreement with a number of GCC members: with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Bahrain (click on each country name to read the agreement). All of these agreements were signed in 2008, save one with the UAE in 2009.


Jordan has expressed its desire for a civilian nuclear program and in September 2007 signed a memorandum of understanding with the US on nuclear cooperation.


Israel is the only country in the Middle East with a nuclear weapons arsenal, with an estimated supply in the hundreds. Its nuclear program was assisted by France (with reactors, heavy water, uranium and components), Norway (heavy water), and the UK (heavy water). The US did not formally support or impede the program.


Egypt plans to go ahead with nuclear power, citing energy concerns. The US had previously agreed to cooperate on the project.

Other Middle Eastern and North African Countries

Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Yemen have also expressed their desire to consider launching a civilian nuclear program. These announcements have often coincided with or closely followed announcements by US supported GCC and Egyptian plans. Though these plans may seem unrealistic in the medium term, they signal a growing support for and movement toward nuclear technology in the region.


Iran’s initial dream of nuclear energy was supported by the US. Plans began in the late 1950s, under the Shah.

Recently, there has been talk of a potential shift in US policy toward Iran’s nuclear program. International relations expert and former Indian diplomat MK Bhadrakumar has written in a recent article that “according to the Wall Street Journal, the Obama administration is ‘carefully considering’ the setting up of an international uranium fuel bank in Kazakhstan, which could form the exit strategy for the historic US-Iran standoff.”


Kazakhstan possesses no nuclear power plants but is considering plans for the construction of two reactors.

The president of Kazakhstan, Nurusultan Nazarbayev, on April 6, announced that his country would be willing to host a US-backed plan for an international nuclear fuel bank. The US supported plan would place all uranium enrichment under international control and supervision.

Kazakhstan has about 19% of the world’s total uranium deposits and is expected to produce 11,900 tons of it in 2009.


Pakistan has two nuclear reactors(2) as well as nuclear weapons. The program received aid from China.


The passage of a recent India-US nuclear pact has strengthened India’s hand in the field of nuclear technology. Despite India’s refusal to sign the NPT and its active weapons program, the US, under president George W. Bush, brokered a deal that essentially circumvents the non-proliferation treaty and allows India international access to fuel and technology.

The deal may well be used to pull India into US foreign policy plans for the Asia-Pacific region, such as on issues relating to Iran and China.

First published at Rabble.ca.


Most sources can be found as hyperlinks within the body of the article.

(1) World Nuclear Association, ‘World Nuclear Power Reactors 2007-09 and Uranium Requirements,’ 1 April 2009, http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/reactors.html.
(2) Ibid.


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