First Iran, Now Arabs Going Nuclear (Q&A with Richard Falk)

05/17/2009 05:12 am 05:12:01 | Updated May 25, 2011

Iran is flexing its nuclear muscles again. North Korea has kicked out nuclear inspectors, and now the world's most potentially explosive region is going nuclear as Arab nations begin importing nuclear technology at an unprecedented pace.

President Obama, who recently spoke of his commitment to pursue a world without nuclear weapons in a major speech in Prague, has offered to hold direct talks with Iran about its disputed nuclear program. But while President Ahmadinejad has been more receptive than in the past, he also announced that Iran is now able to run the entire fuel cycle required to produce nuclear fuel -- including extracting and enriching uranium.

This comes as North Korea announced it was pulling out of six-party nuclear talks, and declared it would reactivate a nuclear plant that produces arms-grade plutonium.

All the while, Arab countries are signing nuclear cooperation agreements with France, Russia, China and the US to import nuclear technology. The US and the UAE have already signed an agreement that would allow US firms to build civilian nuclear power plants, expected to be ratified by Congress later this month.

I spoke to Richard Falk, Chair of the Board at the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, about Iran's nuclear program, its effect on regional Arab ambitions for nuclear power, and whether the Middle East is entering a nuclear arms race.

The following are excerpts from my interview, which can be found in its entirety here on Al Jazeera's Web site.

Q: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president, recently announced the opening of a nuclear fuel plant, and stressed Iran's ability and right to enrich uranium. However, he also welcomed constructive dialogue with the US and other powers. What motives are behind his statements?

Falk: I think it is difficult to assess the motives behind this kind of Iranian public initiative. It may be connected with domestic politics - the election campaign there - where Ahmadinejad is trying to present himself as a leader who has restored Iran's stature and that this stature is associated symbolically with a robust nuclear program.

It may also be a signal that though Iran seems receptive to resuming some kind of negotiations about their nuclear program ... this shouldn't be made too easily.

It could be that this is part of a bargaining strategy by indicating that they already have enrichment capabilities and if they were to curtail them they would have to be given quite a bit in exchange.

Are Arab states pursuing nuclear programs due to growing energy demands or does the perceived threat from Iran's apparent capability to develop nuclear weapons play a role?

Often in these kinds of decisions the true motives are disguised and the public explanations are presented in the most acceptable, least provocative form.

I think that is the case here. Most of the rationale for these expanded nuclear energy programs are almost always related to domestic factors, increasing electricity demand and the expense of importing energy.

It is hard not to believe, given the geopolitical climate in the region - not only Iran, but the Iraq war and other factors like Israel's nuclear capabilities - that the geo-strategic factors have not entered into the motives of all these countries going in that direction.

Of course, they are also imitating one another. There is a sense that if you don't move in this direction you are acknowledging you are subordinate or marginalized in the region.

There is also a prestige element at work. It is extremely hard to read the hierarchy of motives. In the background it is probably the way in which India and Pakistan evolved their nuclear programs.

They developed over time and as a result, India began to be taken seriously as a world power when it crossed the nuclear threshold.

Will the Middle East witness a race for nuclear technologies?

The background of all of this is the abandonment by the Arab countries of their earlier mission of seeking a nuclear-free region that are directed at weapons and combining it with regional security.

Perhaps it is an interpretation that Israel is never going to go along with the idea of a nuclear-free Middle East.

And now that Iran is at least a latent nuclear weapons state, it doesn't make any sense to proceed in that direction anymore, rather to the extent that strategic considerations are at work.

It seems that the leading Arab countries think that they need to have their own long-term security. It should be a contingency option for them.

Arab leaders have implied that Israel does not want to see Arab countries acquire nuclear technology and has thwarted their efforts to advance their programmes. Is there truth to this?

As you suggested, the evidence over the years is that Israel becomes very nervous when any of the Arab countries move in directions that could challenge its regional military superiority.

Though that is sort of a remote prospect, the manner in which Israel views its relationship with its neighbours is such that it has consistently opposed arms sales of any kind or of enhancement of their potential capabilities.

Maybe Israel would prefer to see the Arab countries energy-dependent rather than energy-independent. I think it is consistent with the kind of regional hegemonic ambition that Israel both defensively and offensively assert.

Thirty years ago you called for a total renunciation of nuclear power in exchange for other pollution-free energy sources. Obama has also pledged to create a nuclear-free world. But is it too late?

I think it is already too late. A number of elements make it too late.

The first of which is this sense that alternative energy is indispensable for dealing with the limitations on oil supply and in the face of increasing demand for oil and gas, combined with considerations for climate change and combined with the fact that there is a sufficient commitment on the part of a sufficient number of important states that it is just implausible to think that this kind of total denuclearization can occur.

The only thing that might give it a renewed possibility is another Chernobyl-type accident. Or several Chernobyls which would highlight the other aspect of developing nuclear energy - what you do with the waste and a variety of related things.

Jordan wants to maintain their right to enrich uranium under the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty (NPT). But the UAE has unilaterally given up theirs to prove their peaceful intentions to advance their program. Should Arab countries be allowed to enrich uranium?

The US geopolitical discipline in relation to nuclear energy and weapons has faced a two-tier view of international legitimacy. Some countries are allowed to have the weapons and other countries are not.

Of the ones that are, most say that the others are not allowed to come close to the threshold. At the same time, from the perspective of the international law regime embodied by the NPT, it was supposed to be consistent with having the complete benefits of peaceful uses, including the option to develop the nuclear fuel cycle.

You have a much stricter regime geopolitically than you do legally. The UAE is trying to conform to the geopolitical discipline or reality by assuring the world its nuclear energy program is accepting international inspection and forgoing the option to reprocess nuclear fuel or have the enrichment capability.

I suppose the UAE is trying to make itself look like the optimal actor of how to ensure the energy security transition beyond the petroleum age. They also have the resources to pull off the kind of program there.

Why aren't Arab countries collaborating with each other, perhaps orchestrating a regional repository, or cooperating on research, training, development and nuclear technologies?

You can imagine a variety of cross national arrangements, but the fact that it is not happening is for several reasons.

1) The degree to which energy programs are seen from a national security perspective

2) The extent to which nuclear programs in particular are connected with the prestige of a particular country. Therefore the autonomy of the program is relevant and important - it depends how far they want to carry the image of autonomy - the full realization from a security perspective would require the Jordan approach. I think that is definitely related.

3) The third consideration is that in a changing and uncertain political context having full national control creates flexibility for the future. So that from the perspective of state sovereignty it may seem like an imprudent dimension of policy to get bogged down in a framework that requires regional or sub regional cooperation.

Whether a regional repository is seen as something that is in the way, the opposite of prestige is hard to know.

Is it fair for 'nuclear weapons states' to tell others they cannot produce weapons without stripping down their own nuclear arsenals?

The fascinating fact is that they have been able to successfully for 45 years convince most of the actors in the world that they are better off going along with nonproliferation charades, rather than repudiating them.

It is based on this whole pervasive double standard that is embedded in the whole idea of nuclear nonproliferation and what I call the mind game that has been successfully played by the nuclear weapons states that makes us believe that the danger comes more from those who don't have the weapons, rather than those who have the weapons.

Nuclear weapons states have not fulfilled the Article Six pledge of nuclear disarmament. It was unanimously affirmed in the advisory opinion of the world court of the legality of nuclear weapons.

It was divided on the issues of use, but unanimous on obligation to seek in good faith and I think they have not acted in good faith and fulfilled the real bargain. Therefore non-nuclear states, from a legal point of view, would be quite entitled to say they are no longer bound either.

Click here to read this interview in its entirety on Al Jazeera English.