Jordan’s uranium and Israel’s fears

At a time when other regional ties with Israel are facing setbacks, US and Israeli moves to prevent Jordan from enriching its own uranium may be misguided when Jordan can play positive role in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process
Heather McRobie
23 August 2010

A lack of natural resources has long plagued Jordan: along with one of the world's smallest reserves of potable water, the Middle East country is dependent on importing around 95% of its oil.  Such energy dependency would pose a problem for any country; in Jordan, it's compounded by the strain of one of the largest refugee populations in the world, wedged as the small country is between Israel and Iraq. Given its peaceful relations with Israel, Jordan looked set to be the perfect partner for the Obama administration's plans to promote the non-military use of atomic energy as an alternative fuel resource.  And when, in 2007, Jordan discovered at least 65,000 tonnes of uranium ore in the deserts near Amman, it seemed the country had at last found a chance to break its expensive dependence on energy imports.

Jordan swiftly began a nuclear programme to make use of these new-found reserves: King Abdullah has announced that the country plans to both fuel itself with four planned nuclear plants, and eventually begin exporting energy to its neighbours, including Iraq and Syria.  The USA has praised Jordan's approach to developing its nuclear energy – Jordan has been a model of cooperation with the IAEA, and King Abdullah has announced his intention to make the country's nuclear programme the most transparent, arguing that a public-private partnership will allow greater access and oversight. The country's new energy programme will also include initiating projects to harness solar and wind energy.    Moreover, as a signatory of the UN's main non-proliferation treaty, Jordan fully enjoys the right to produce, use and export its own energy.

But while supporting the development of its nuclear technology, America is insisting that Jordan purchase its reactor fuel on the nuclear market (it will “allow” Jordan to mine the uranium ore, but not convert it into fuel).  The Obama administration stresses that it will refuse to help Jordan if it makes use of its own uranium, and intends to model any deal with Jordan on the USA's recent nuclear agreement with the United Arab Emirates, who agreed to purchase their uranium on the international market, but reserve the right to renegotiate this deal if another country concludes an agreement on more favourable terms.

Pursuing its right to enrich uranium without America's agreement would prove difficult for Jordan: the USA plays a powerful role in the Nuclear Supplier Group which monitors the sale of nuclear technology.  Moreover, many reactors from countries outside the USA contain American components which would require Jordan to gain America's approval to purchase. 

But the USA's insistence that the country give up the right to use its own uranium seems to be a strategic miscalculation with the potential to alienate one of America and Israel's key Arab allies.  While the Jordanian government under reformist King Abdullah can certainly be criticised for its benign and even not-so-benign authoritarianism, it remains a positive presence in the Israel-Palestinian peace process (and the strongest ally of the USA in the Arab world). In fact, it was its willingness to 'help' in the war on terror that caused concern for human rights campaigners.

Undermining the country's nuclear intentions when Jordan has done more than it is required to do in terms of tranparency and negotiation gives the impression that America will always treat Middle Eastern nuclear projects with suspicion, and that there's little incentive to cooperate.

Israel looms large in the ongoing US-Jordanian talks about the country's nuclear programme.  King Abdullah has already complained that Israel is sabotaging Jordan's attempts to purchase nuclear technology and expertise, and is putting pressure on the USA to prevent Jordan from using its own uranium.  Haaretz has quoted Israeli officials stating that Israel isn't opposed to Jordan's nuclear programme, and is concerned only with proliferation and thus the security of any reactors.  However, King Abdullah argues that Israel's "underhand" tactics have caused relations between the two countries to deteriorate to their worst point since the 1994 peace agreement.

Even aside from the fact that Jordan's nuclear programme is legal under international law, Israel's open misgivings towards Jordan's energy plans seem misguided. The deadly attack on an aid ship bound for Gaza in May has obviously alienated Israel's core Middle Eastern allies, particularly Turkey, who recalled its ambassador and pulled out of joint military exercises – severely exacerbating the growing frostiness between Israel and Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan. As a rift between Israel and Egypt grew after Mubarak ordered that the Egypt-Gaza crossing be open until further notice, in recent weeks only Jordan's relationship with Israel looked set to survive the summer.  To knowingly alienate Jordan by undermining the country's right to energy independence would be an act of masochism by Israel, particularly when the country's nuclear programme presents an opportunity to develop a model of transparency in nuclear energy development, and a chance to strengthen a more moderate presence in the region at a time when it is sorely needed.

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