Iran, Syria: Axis of Nuclear Power?

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JERUSALEM - On the sidelines of an international conference on nuclear energy this week, Syria's deputy foreign minister said his country is pursuing "alternative energy sources, including nuclear energy."

"The peaceful application of nuclear energy should not be monopolized by the few that own this technology, but should be available to all," Deputy Foreign Minister Faysal Mekdad said in Paris on Tuesday, without further elaboration.

But Syria's nuclear aspirations, like Iran's, are neither new nor necessarily restricted to energy production.

Israel believes that Syria has been building covert nuclear facilities, with technical and logistical support from North Korea and Iran, for several years.

The facility destroyed by an Israeli airstrike in September 2007 was a nearly completed nuclear reactor of North Korean design intended to produce weapons-grade plutonium.

The IAEA (International Atomic Energy Association) reported that the collection of uranium particles found at the site in June 2008 was evidence of nuclear activity there. Syria has not allowed the IAEA to return to that site or any other since then.

Iran also insists that its nuclear program is strictly for energy production, but neither its rhetoric nor the facts on the ground support its claims. The same is true of Syria.

By their own admission, the two countries are tightly aligned with one another.

"We are brothers. We have mutual interests, as well as common goals and enemies," Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said at a joint press conference in Damascus with Bashar Assad, his Syrian counterpart, on February 24.

Both countries would like to see Israel wiped off the map and both finance and support Islamic terror groups, such as Hezbollah and Hamas, which they refer to as the "resistance."

"The Zionist entity [Israel] will eventually disappear…With Allah's help, the new Middle East will be a Middle East without Zionists and imperialists [the U.S.]," Ahmadinejad predicted.

Other Middle Eastern countries, besides Iran and Syria, are increasingly interested in building nuclear power plants, which would provide them with the technology to develop their own nuclear weapons to counter a nuclear-armed Iran.

Last month, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak spent two days in Moscow shoring up details of a nuclear cooperation agreement with Russia. The visit followed an announcement last October that Egypt planned to build several nuclear power plants. 

French President Nicolas Sarkozy visited Morocco in February, where he promised to help them develop a nuclear energy program.

Syria and Turkey announced plans to develop a joint energy company, which would include nuclear power plants. Turkey is accepting bids for building its first plant and is laying the groundwork for a second one.

Since 2006, about a dozen Middle Eastern countries have decided to pursue nuclear power, with Saudi Arabia, Libya, Jordan, Qatar, Kuwait, the UAE, Bahrain and Oman jumping on board this past year.

And what about Israel, surrounded by a sea of less-than-friendly Arab countries?

At the Paris conference, Israeli Infrastructure Minister Uzi Landau said Israel, which uses coal and natural gas to produce electricity, was also considering nuclear energy production.

"Israel has always considered nuclear power to partially replace its dependence on coal," Landau said.  

Unlike its neighbors, all signatories of the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Israel has maintained a low profile for years, neither affirming nor denying its nuclear arms capabilities.

Nor has Israel caved in to pressure to sign the NPT, which would require disclosure and disarmament of any weapons it may have. Successive Israeli leaders have managed to convince their U.S. ally of the need to retain military superiority in the region.

D.C.-based political analyst Guy Ziv believes that Israel's "policy of ambiguity has been a key factor in limiting Arab aggression."

In a recent article entitled "Washington, Israel and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty," published in The Jerusalem Post, Ziv concluded that "the Obama administration has come to understand that, at least for the time being, Israel's ambiguous nuclear policy, along with its refusal to join the NPT, is a force that promotes regional stability."

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From her perch high atop the mountains surrounding Jerusalem, Tzippe Barrow helps provide a bird’s eye view of events unfolding in her country.

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