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Oil for nukes – mostly a bad idea

Bartering nuclear technology for oil is a path to the spread of nuclear weapons.

By Matthew Fuhrmann / February 29, 2008

Cambridge, Mass.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy is on a nuclear power selling spree in the Middle East.

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He has recently pledged to assist the civilian nuclear programs of three oil-producing countries in this conflict-prone region: Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. These pledges were preceded by signed offers of nuclear aid to Algeria and Libya, two other oil exporters.

If history is any guide, two things seem probable. First, these nuclear power sales are an attempt to ensure a stable oil supply at a time when prices are approaching record highs. And second, this oil for nuclear technology swap is a deal that France will later regret.

As part of my research at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, I recently analyzed more than 2,000 nuclear agreements – like the ones France just signed – that countries have concluded since 1950. The findings confirmed that the common practice of trading nuclear technology for steady oil is a bad idea. The short-term gains for the nuclear supplier almost always result in adverse long-term repercussions – like the spread of nuclear weapons.

For example, in 1975, France signed an agreement with Iraq authorizing the export of a research reactor and highly enriched uranium. According to French officials at the time, their aim was to obtain a permanent and secure oil supply from a country that provided 20 percent of its oil.

It worked. But it also had tremendous consequences for international and regional security.

According to intelligence estimates, French assistance could have enabled Iraq to build nuclear weapons in a matter of years. Recognizing the severity of this threat, especially after Saddam Hussein became president, Israel used preemptive strikes to destroy the French-supplied reactor in 1981. Perhaps realizing its mistake, France terminated its nuclear relationship with Iraq shortly after.

History is rife with similar stories. The United States assisted Iran's civilian nuclear program between 1957 and 1979. This assistance included the construction of the Tehran Research Reactor and the supply of enriched uranium to fuel it. The US believed that the cooperation would persuade Iran to lower the price of oil, particularly in the 1970s when prices spiked following the 1973 Arab-Israeli war.