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Debating France's Nuclear Diplomacy

Some analysts say that the recent war games in the Persian Gulf with France, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates are connected to French President Nicolas Sarkozy's efforts to promote the sale of France's civilian nuclear technology to several Arab nations.

Since he came to office last May, Mr. Sarkozy has signed multi-billion dollar nuclear deals with Algeria, Libya, Morocco, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. His offer to build nuclear power reactors and provide technical assistance is also being considered by Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Some experts argue that President Sarkozy is leveraging his country's advanced nuclear power sector to bolster French diplomatic, military and commercial interests in the Arab world and especially in the Middle East.

Charles Ferguson is a nuclear energy expert at the Washington-based Council on Foreign Relations. "The same time President Sarkozy was signing agreements with these countries to consider building nuclear power plants, he was also signing agreements with many of these same countries to sell them conventional weapons and also to establish a military base in the United Arab Emirates. If that base gets built in UAE, France will be the only western country, other than the United States, with a military installation in the Persian Gulf region," says Ferguson. "To move that along France recently had war games with the UAE, just a few weeks ago."

Atomic France

France is a long-standing world leader in nuclear technology. Nuclear plants generate nearly 80 percent of the country's electricity, which is the largest percentage of electric energy that any country produces from nuclear power.

Robert Norris with the Washington-based Natural Resources Defense Council says France can export a wide range of services for nuclear energy. "That's part of the package that Sarkozy is trying to offer. 'You can buy French designed reactors and we will school your engineers, your chemists, your physicists, all the rest of it, to know how to operate them and understand them,'" says Norris.

Norris says one of the reasons France wants to maintain good relations with oil-rich Middle Eastern countries is to safeguard its oil imports. Matthew Fuhrmann, a nuclear proliferation expert at Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, agrees. "I think there is a certain quid pro quo going on here with the expectation that France will supply nuclear technology in exchange for a secure supply of oil," says Fuhrmann. "This is not anything new. We saw this in the 1970s, especially after the 1973 Arab-Israeli War when oil prices were very high and countries were very concerned [that] supplies would be cut off. So they began to court key countries in the Middle East, such as Iraq."

Nuclear Interests and Regrets

According to other nuclear technology analysts, including Council on Foreign Relations researcher Charles Ferguson, the Persian Gulf States have an economic interest in acquiring nuclear plants for civilian purposes. "The oil producing states in that region feel that eventually they are going to have to shift away more from using petroleum to make their own electricity and they are looking for alternative means of making electricity," says Ferguson. "Nuclear is one of those means. The feeling is that if they can free up oil that they don't need to use domestically, but then they could sell to other countries, then they could stand to gain financially."

But many nuclear specialists argue that trading sensitive know-how for a steady oil supply is a bad idea. Harvard University's Matthew Fuhrmann says history is rife with examples of states regretting their transfer of nuclear technology to other nations. He cites U.S. assistance in building Iran's civilian nuclear program during Shah Rezah Pahlavi's rule and France's export of a research reactor and highly enriched uranium to Iraq during Saddam Hussein's rule.

"The link between peaceful nuclear cooperation and nuclear weapons is much stronger than most people realize. Even activities that are often perceived to be innocuous can be problematic from a proliferation standpoint because they create an indigenous knowledge base that encourages weapons exploration down the road," says Fuhrmann. French assistance, he adds, could have enabled Iraq to build nuclear weapons in a matter of years, while today's reactor in Teheran is used to provide advanced training to Iranian scientists who are aiding the country's nuclear program.

Beyond Nuclear Power

Leonor Tomero of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation in Washington is concerned about the consequences of many other states acquiring nuclear technology. "As you see the potential spread of nuclear power, we might end up in a case where 20 or more additional states might decide to develop these sensitive technologies and, in so doing, acquire the capability in a very short period of time to make nuclear weapons," says Tomero. She adds that the transfer of nuclear technology to the conflict prone Middle East could further destabilize the region. Many analysts argue that the Persian Gulf states have covert reasons for wanting their own nuclear programs. "They see Iran steadily building up the capacity to make nuclear weapons and these countries want to hedge their bets," says Tomero.

Charles Ferguson with the Council on Foreign Relations adds, "If they keep building up their nuclear power development, then they could reach a point where these countries can say, 'Well, now it makes financial sense for us to start developing a uranium enrichment plant.' Once you have an enrichment plant, you can either use it for peaceful purposes to make fuel or you can use it for military purposes to make nuclear weapons material."

Ferguson and other experts warn that France's nuclear diplomacy in the Middle East could result in the spread of nuclear weapons in one of the most volatile regions of the world.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.