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by Yoav Stern - Haaretz
Israel is following with interest the closer nuclear ties France is forging with the Arab world. The Foreign Ministry has declined to go on the record on the issue, but ministry officials say that though they are concerned about the matter, they do not oppose it.
So who has what?
Morocco: Advancing a civilian nuclear program with France.
Libya: Canceled its military nuclear program in 2003. Libya and France signed an agreement to cooperate on civilian projects.
Egypt: Developing a program for an energy reactor and negotiating a cooperation agreement with the U.S. and France.
Saudi Arabia: Signed a civilian nuclear cooperation agreement with the U.S.
Syria: Interested in developing nuclear activity within an "Arab framework," in cooperation with Turkey.
Jordan: Rapidly advancing an energy nuclear reactor and negotiating its erection with France.
United Arab Emirates: Signed a nuclear cooperation agreement with France at the beginning of the year.
Last Saturday, French Prime Minister Francois Fillon signed a cooperation agreement on nuclear issues with his Algerian counterpart while touring the North African country. Algeria has been suspected in the past of conducting a nuclear project for military purposes.
France is also in close contact on this subject with other North African and Arab countries, as well as states in the Persian Gulf.
Officials in the government are concerned about the nuclearization, even if in most cases it is for civilian purposes and not for arms.
"The French are ready to supply this technology anywhere, as long as they are being paid. They would sell a nuclear reactor to Israel, too, if it expressed an interest," a source at the ministry said.
The officials said France also wants to be seen as a leader in the regional developments in the Mediterranean and Europe.
France is trying to persuade Algeria to support, or at least not oppose, the Mediterranean Union set to be established in Paris next month.
Arab nuclearization began in recent years mainly in response to Iranian nuclearization. Dr. Ephraim Asculai, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, told Haaretz yesterday: "Why are Arab countries waking up all of a sudden about the nuclear issue? Clearly Arab countries are worried about Iran. This is not their response, but rather a statement: 'We are here.'"
The sale of nuclear technology by France can provide a livelihood for many of its people. Asculai says billions of dollars are invested in the building of a single reactor, money that no country would scoff at easily.
The Arab nuclear awakening, as well as the search for alternatives to oil, has aroused the major nuclear powers to look for business possibilities. In addition to France, Russia, the United States and China, other powers such as Germany are courting the Arab countries. Iran, for its part, is trying to appear as though it is taking under its wing Muslim countries interested in moving ahead in this area.
In his last visit to Algeria, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad discussed the nuclear issue extensively. But it should be remembered that not every agreement on nuclear cooperation matures into the establishment of reactors or full implementation. Declarations of intent do not necessarily obligate the parties.
Among those expressing themselves on the nuclear issue is King Abdullah of Jordan, who told the Washington Post last week at the Petra Conference that Jordan would be quicker than other Arab countries in obtaining nuclear energy.
He said that Jordan's goals were entirely civilian. Jordan was considering placing nuclear energy in the hands of a civilian firm to decrease concerns, he said.
In Syria, which officially denies that the facility bombed in September was nuclear, Oil Minister Sufian Alao said recently that his country would move ahead on joint nuclear activities with Turkey, as reported by Turkey's Anatolian News Agency.
The extent of Syria's cooperation with North Korea and Iran in the nuclear realm is disturbing to many, and no single answer is forthcoming. Syrian President Bashar Assad says his country wants to develop a nuclear program "in an Arab framework," meaning with other Arab countries under the umbrella of the Arab League.
Egypt uses the nuclear issue to prove its advanced patriotic activities, with promotion of the issue associated with President Hosni Mubarak's son, Gamal Mubarak.
Saudi Arabia has raised the issue in various forums and is holding talks with the U.S. and France. The Gulf Cooperation Council, which includes most of the Arab states in the Persian Gulf, has declared that it would promote cooperation on this issue.
According to Asculai, a number of Arab states have poor scientific infrastructure that will make it difficult for them to develop independent nuclear programs. He says technical difficulties will block the Gulf states from building a nuclear reactor.
"A nuclear reactor for energy must be profitable only if it produces a great deal of electricity. For the countries to collaborate on this issue, they will have to upgrade the infrastructure for delivering electricity," he said.
Algeria: Advancing a nuclear program for civilian purposes with France and Iran. It has several facilities that are suspected of being used in the past for military purposes.