From geopolitics to energy security?

Perjantaina, 24. huhtikuuta 2009     0 kommentti(a)
Mari Luomi
Kansainvälinen ympäristö- ja luonnonvarapolitiikka -tutkimusohjelma
In the Middle East, nuclear energy has arrived on the domestic energy policy agendas through a very different route than in the West. Nuclear energy started off in the region mainly as a geopolitical issue, and has only then become an issue of energy politics. Environmental arguments are mainly used by Middle Eastern governments to justify their new nuclear agendas, while voices reminding of the potential dangers are weak.

It is often argued that it was Iran that made nuclear energy ‘fashionable’ again in the region: a few years ago no-one else in the oil-abundant region was thinking seriously about alternative sources. However, the rise of energy and climate issues on the international agenda has also played its part. According to a Carnegie Endowment report published in March 2009, all except four (Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Israel) MENA states have announced their interest in nuclear energy during the last few years. Even the oil-rich Gulf Cooperation Council states have carried out a feasibility study on a joint programme.

Although nuclear power plants will remain a desert mirage in most countries of the region, the term nuclear renaissance has already become common terminology among many observers of Middle Eastern politics. In reality only a handful of states in the region will have both the financial means and the political will to carry out their plans. Moreover, many of those that have the money, mainly the wealthy Gulf monarchies, prefer to rely on their domestic hydrocarbon resources to quench their energy needs. Also, according an IISS report from 2008, there are major technical challenges too, mainly relating to the lack of infrastructure, legal framework and human resources.

The wave of declarations of interest from Middle Eastern states began around three years ago. Many political scientists have interpreted these as a response to Iran’s nuclear ambitions or as a warning signal to the West on the consequences of letting Iran fulfil these: ‘if you don’t stop Iran, we will do so’. However, as the plans have started crystallising into feasibility studies and policy documents, the analysis has also become more nuanced.

Those states that are seriously considering nuclear energy as mainly from an energy policy perspective have had a hard time trying to prove their peaceful intentions. Voices in the West, especially the United States, have been worried about the spread of nuclear technology into unwanted places, particularly Iran. Still, even the United States is already deeply involved in bringing the nuclear era to the Middle East – except of course to Iran and its allies. Since 2008, the United States has signed memoranda of understanding on civilian nuclear energy cooperation with states such as Algeria, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. France and other major global suppliers have engaged in similar agreements with a number of states in the region.

Surely, the cooperation agreements signed with most of Iran’s neighbours also send a political message: ‘look at all you can get if you play by our rules!’

Of Iran’s neighbours, the model pupil number one has without doubt been the United Arab Emirates. The UAE is often named as the most likely to be the first Arab state to succeed in building a nuclear power plant, possibly as early as in 2017. Dubbed already by President Obama's administration as a ‘model for the world’, the UAE’s nuclear programme has advanced at a record pace. The UAE first started exploring the idea three years ago. In April 2008 it published a policy document that outlined its motivations regarding nuclear energy. The document stresses the need to develop additional sources of electricity to meet growing demand, underlines maximum transparency and renounces enrichment of nuclear fuel domestically.

It is a fact that with rising demand of electricity even oil exporting states like the UAE and Iran need additional energy in the near future. Whether the source must be nuclear energy, however, has much more to do with domestic political choices. Departing from totally different backgrounds, with only partly converging motivations, states as dissimilar as Iran and the UAE – and Finland! – now seem to have all arrived at the same positive conclusion. However, in the case of the Middle East, as long as the main regional sources of instability persist, geopolitical considerations will always remain present in the evaluation of any nuclear programme.

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