Oil for nukes – mostly a bad idea

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

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

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.

Of course, Washington regretted offering these exports after Iran switched from friend to foe following the 1979 Islamic Revolution. But it could not take back what it had already provided.

Today, the reactor in Tehran is used to provide advanced training to Iranian scientists – auspiciously aiding Iran's current nuclear program. This program continues to undermine stability in the Middle East and could trigger a nuclear arms race in the region.

Selling nuclear power technology for oil only comes back to take a bite out of world security. Nuclear exporters in general must be more cautious in choosing their trading partners. The link between the peaceful and military uses of the nuclear technology is stronger than many people realize. A statistical analysis of this relationship shows that countries receiving technology for "peaceful" purposes also eventually want nuclear weapons. Because distinguishing between "peaceful" and sinister uses of the atom is next to impossible, and civilian nuclear agreements ultimately enable proliferation, countries must resist the temptation to seek cheap oil to ease economic woes.

Suppliers should learn from the experience of the former Soviet Union. After inadvertently aiding the Chinese nuclear weapons program in the 1950s, Moscow rarely bartered nuclear technology for short-term political or economic gains and kept the most sensitive technologies away from even its closest allies. The success of the Soviet experience suggests that – with due diligence – the current trend can be reversed.

We are in the midst of a major nuclear renaissance. Countries in the Middle East, Africa, Latin America, and southeast Asia have all expressed a desire to begin or revive civilian nuclear programs. Bartering nuclear technology for oil is sure to lead to the further spread of nuclear weapons.

Instead of taking dangerous shortcuts to economic enhancement, countries such as France must look to more fulfilling solutions.

An oil-thirsty world is preferable to one full of nuclear bombs.

Matthew Fuhrmann is a research fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. He is currently writing a book on why countries cooperate in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy.

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