Safeguarding Nuclear Security in the Shadow of Middle East Revolutions

Nuclear nonproliferation goals must be placed above short-term financial and political preferences. The uncertainties of revolution and the dangers of proliferation demand nothing less.
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As revolutionary fervor sweeps across the Middle East and the Obama administration takes steps to recalibrate decades of U.S. foreign policy toward the region, it must not neglect the issue of nuclear nonproliferation. The region's present instability, historic precedent, and inadequate safeguards make the rapidly increasing trend of nuclear deal-making with Arab autocrats a dangerous road to tread. Unlike democratic transitions, which Washington is morally obligated to support but which are largely beyond its control, regional nonproliferation is an issue on which the administration has leverage, and on which it must step up its efforts to exert influence.

Over the past several years, the Middle East has become something of a nuclear bazaar. A.Q. Khan and his network may be out of business, but legal nuclear cooperation deals are on the upswing. Suppliers such as France, Russia, South Korea, Japan, and the United States are eagerly competing to ink deals with, and provide nuclear aid to, more than a dozen Middle Eastern states, including Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia -- many of the same regimes now facing threats of internal upheaval.

The primary concern here for Washington must be the proliferation risks associated with transferring nuclear technology to unstable regimes. Revolutions are notoriously unpredictable, and the short-term result is rarely stable democracy. What guarantees exist that nuclear installations, institutions, and knowledge remain secure during and after such tumult?

Indeed, history offers reason for caution. While former Soviet states such as Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine willingly gave up possession of nuclear weapons after the end of the Cold War, the United States has spent nearly 20 years attempting to secure nuclear materials in former Soviet states. Despite Washington's valiant efforts, the danger remains that such materials could be acquired by aspiring nuclear terrorists. Revolution also offers a strong proliferation concern in nuclear states like Pakistan. The U.S. continues to provide billions of dollars in aid to Islamabad despite its qualms with Pakistani policies (more than $18 billion since the 9/11 attacks) because of fears that chaos in Pakistan could lead to nuclear disaster.

Yet revolution is problematic even if states do not possess an advanced nuclear program. The case of Iran is instructive here. Though Shah Reza Pahlavi's nuclear program was temporarily shut down by Ayatollah Khomeini after the 1979 revolution, Tehran had restarted the program by the mid-1980s, and has been building upon it up until the present day. To be sure, immediate fears related to Iran's nuclear program are rooted in its highly-sensitive uranium enrichment activities, and not from the Shah's reactor projects. But one cannot view these efforts separately because they represent a decades-long arc toward acquiring advanced nuclear technologies.

Moreover, while several aspects of Iran's nuclear behavior run contrary to its legal obligations, it was, in principle, within its legal rights under the 1968 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) to acquire and build proliferation-risky enrichment facilities. This remains the case today with all Middle Eastern states except the United Arab Emirates which, in exchange for a 2007 deal with the U.S., formally relinquished its rights to domestic uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing.

The fact that Middle Eastern states could legally pursue such proliferation-sensitive technologies under the nuclear deals being struck today should offer a moment of pause in these uncertain times, particularly as the international group of nuclear supplier states remains divided over whether to ban transfers of these technologies, and the Obama administration remains undecided about whether to insist on UAE-style prohibitions in all of America's future nuclear cooperation deals.

Yet, working out a grand bargain within and amongst nuclear supplier states is a process that has been years in the making and, at its present pace, could easily take several more years.

Meanwhile, inadequate proliferation controls increase the likelihood that nuclear development in the Middle East could contribute to a climate of fear and insecurity, setting off a dangerous round of nuclear hedging, arms racing and, in the worst-case scenario, war. Iran's nuclear malfeasance already appears to have several Arab leaders scurrying for political and military countermeasures.

Given the dramatic events unfolding in the Middle East, the Obama administration would be wise to consider taking immediate precautionary steps, including imposing a moratorium on U.S. nuclear deal-making with Middle Eastern states until the current instability subsides. In the interim, the administration should revisit U.S. conditions for granting nuclear assistance, exploring bilateral and multilateral avenues for ensuring the safety and security of nuclear materials.

At the same time, Washington should develop and present to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) specific proposals for improving nuclear safeguards during times of major political transition. The administration should also convene a conference of Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) members (the official body of nuclear supplier states) to enlist their support on a regional nuclear moratorium and the development of more comprehensive safeguards measures.

Certain NSG and IAEA members are sure to strongly resist this push, just as they have been resisting efforts to tighten export control guidelines on enrichment and reprocessing for years. But the present context offers an opportunity to redirect the nature of the discussion away from issues of equity and toward one of responsibility.

Simply put, nonproliferation goals must be placed above short-term financial and political preferences. The uncertainties of revolution and the dangers of proliferation demand nothing less.

Equity is an important foundation of the international nonproliferation regime, and the Obama administration should not shy away from publicly supporting Arab states' right to peaceful nuclear cooperation under the NPT. But stalled nuclear cooperation can always be restarted. Failed nonproliferation is much more difficult to reverse.

Jonathan Pearl is a Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a Jennings Randolph Peace Scholar at the United States Institute of Peace.

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