Nicolas Sarkozy has earned high marks for reorienting French diplomacy in a more pro-American direction. But he is also undertaking a little-noticed and potentially dangerous initiative. This Financial Times article reports that he is actively promoting the sale of French nuclear-power technology to Middle Eastern countries:
Since becoming president in May he has signed nuclear co-operation agreements with Morocco, Algeria and Libya as well as overseeing the sale of two nuclear power stations to China.
France is also looking to provide nuclear facilities or technical assistance to Qatar, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Egypt and Jordan.
The motive for this initiative is undoubtedly innocent: The French nuclear power industry leads the world, and Sarkozy no doubt figures he can help his economy by generating more sales. He is also probably interested in strengthening French influence in a region that it has long seen as its backyard.
But the outcome may be not-so-innocent. Every nation that has acquired nuclear weapons since the 1940’s has done so initially by launching a “nuclear power” program. The expertise and facilities needed to generate nuclear power can readily be converted to create nuclear weapons. The West barely nipped Libya’s nuclear program in the bud in 2003. What is Sarko thinking in helping Libya to rebuild its capacity? Even giving aid to more pro-Western regimes (such as those in Egypt and Jordan) is a dubious move, since they might be tempted to acquire a nuclear arsenal if Iran leads the way. The result could be a destabilizing nuclear arms race in the world’s most volatile region.
The French claim there will be enough safeguards built in to their sales to prevent such a scenario. Let us hope so. But it still seems like an unnecessary risk simply to earn a few more euros.