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. Trade, Iran stand-off driving Sarkozy's nuclear strategy in Gulf
PARIS, Jan 14 (AFP) Jan 14, 2008
President Nicolas Sarkozy's decision to export French atomic know-how to the Middle East and Africa promises rich commercial rewards, while further isolating Iran over its nuclear ambitions, experts say.

After visiting Saudi Arabia, Sarkozy arrived Monday in Qatar and was to go on to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), where he is expected to sign a framework accord Tuesday on nuclear energy cooperation.

France is home to a world-leading nuclear industry, spearheaded by Areva -- which builds reactors, mines uranium and supplies fuel -- and the utility Electricite de France, which operates nuclear plants.

Sarkozy is vying to lead a global revival of the multi-billion dollar industry, fuelled by worries about global warming and high energy prices, and has vowed to "help any country which wants to acquire civilian nuclear power".

The UAE, which like other Gulf states is interested in civilian nuclear power despite its oil and gas wealth, is set to become the third Arab country to ink such a deal with Paris, after accords with Algeria and Libya.

On Monday, the French oil giant Total announced it had reached agreement with Areva and utility group Suez on plans to build two next-generation nuclear power plants in Abu Dhabi.

Nuclear cooperation also came up during Sarkozy's talks in Riyadh, where he proposed sending French experts to work on the question of nuclear energy. He has also agreed to examine possible nuclear ties with Morocco and Egypt.

Areva signed an eight-billion-euro (12-billion-dollar) deal in November to deliver two reactors to energy-hungry China, and is bidding to build others in the United States and South Africa.

Around the world, Vietnam, Indonesia, Chile and Argentina are already on the list of prospective buyers of French-designed nuclear reactors, while Paris is hoping to sign a nuclear energy accord with New Delhi during a visit by Sarkozy this month.

But by stepping up nuclear cooperation with the Arab world, Sarkozy hopes to increase the diplomatic isolation of Iran, whose nuclear programme, long held secret, is suspected of concealing military ambitions.

Sarkozy has said the "sharing of civilian nuclear (technology) will be one of the foundations of a pact of confidence which the West must forge with the Islamic world."

"If you tell Arab nations they are not allowed civilian nuclear power because they are Arab, you give an extraordinary bonus to Iran, which has made that its whole argument."

For Francois Heisbourg, of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), the "key to France's strategy is the Iranian affair" and a wish to highlight Iran's mistake in defying the international community over the nuclear question.

"It is hard to mobilise non-nuclear countries against Iran if you treat them the same as Iran," which is under international sanctions for its refusal to comply with UN demands concerning its nuclear programme.

However Sarkozy's strategy has fuelled concerns over the potential risk of supplying nuclear technology to an unstable region, dominated by authoritarian regimes and prey to Islamic extremism.

"The risk of proliferation goes up with every country that uses nuclear energy," German Energy Minister Gernot Erler warned after news of France's decision to supply nuclear technology to Libya.

French environmentalists accuse Sarkozy of riding roughshod over concerns about human rights, the environment and international security.

Jean-Pierre Maulny, of France's Institute for International and Strategic Relations (IRIS), warns of a risk associated with the spread of nuclear energy in such a sensitive region.

"There is a question mark about proliferation. Once you have a civilian nuclear programme, you can also have a military nuclear programme unless everything is perfectly controlled."

But for Heisbourg, "the potential for proliferation" linked to French civilian nuclear aid is "extremely limited" compared to the risk of covert programmes based on technology transferred from countries such as Pakistan.

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