Muslim Nations Want Nuclear Energy, Are Wary of Iran

BALI, Indonesia – As the West debates the perceived Iranian nuclear threat, leaders of the world’s eight largest Muslim countries, collectively known as the D8, met on this resort island over the weekend where they asserted the right of Islamic countries to peaceful nuclear energy.

"It is simply a statement in support of peaceful nuclear energy, which is a universal right. It has no other meaning," Indria Samego, senior analyst at the Indonesia Institute of Science, told IPS, referring to a D8 (short for Developing Eight) resolution..

Virtually unknown in the West, the D8 is the brainchild of Necmettin Erbakan, Turkey’s first Islamist prime minister, who was forced to step down in 1997.

The group – which includes Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Malaysia, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Turkey – was established with the Istanbul Declaration on June 15, 1997, and has since met roughly every two years. The Bali summit was the fifth in the series and was preceded by meetings in Tehran, Cairo, and Dhaka, besides the first meeting in Istanbul.

The D8 is an offshoot of the Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC). However, while the 57-country strong OIC is dominated by the Middle Eastern countries, the D8 represents the voice of almost 900 million people, who, with the exception of Iran, follow a moderate Sunni version of Islam and have adopted Western values of democracy.

The group’s focus is trade and welfare. As a matter of fact, the organization’s stated aims are "to improve developing countries’ position in the world economy, diversify and create new opportunities in trade relations, enhance participation in decision-making at international level, and provide better standards of living for its citizens."

Yet, the group also aims to counterbalance the influence the G8, the mighty eight among the industrialized countries in the world, including the United States, Britain, Canada, Germany, France, Italy, Japan, and Russia.

Regarding alternative energy, the Bali Declaration – as the final document is called – reads: "We reaffirm our commitment to enhance cooperation in the field of energy, to develop alternative and renewable energy sources, among others bio-fuel, biomass, hydro, solar, wind, and the use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes."

The document was quickly pounced on by Iran, which is currently looking for international support in its ongoing tussle with the Washington-led group that accuses it of secretly trying to build up a nuclear weapons capability. Tehran claims that it is purely interested in clean nuclear energy.

"We thank D8’s member countries for their initiative to defend the development and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes," Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said at a separate press conference following the release of the group’s statement.

Commenting on the matter, Samego admitted that "from Tehran’s perspective," the resolution could be seen as a sign of support. "But only from their viewpoint. Indonesia has signed an internationally binding treaty against nuclear weapons."

Indonesia recently announced plans to build a nuclear plant, which should be operative by 2015.

It is significant that in their speeches, none of the heads of delegations representing the D8 members mentioned Iran’s nuclear program.

In the recent past, Indonesia’s President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi – to mention two – have stated support for Tehran’s right to pursue nuclear technology for peaceful means. At the same time, the two leaders have urged Ahmadinejad to be more transparent and have reiterated their opposition to nuclear weapons.

At least one D8 country, Pakistan, has nuclear weapons and is a non-signatory to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). Despite being a close ally, Washington has refused to cooperate with Pakistan in a civilian nuclear energy program on the grounds that it had proliferated nuclear technology to Iran, Libya, and North Korea.

According to Alexander C. Chandra, foreign policy analyst at the Jakarta-based Institute for Global Justice, far from endorsing Iran’s belligerent nuclear program, Muslim countries are actually worried by it.

"The members of the D8 and of the OIC are concerned with what is happening in Iran, but Iran is not listening, it does what it wants," he told IPS in a telephone interview.

The crisis threatens to get worse and UN sanctions loom large after Ahmadinejad turned down a proposal drafted by European countries.

"Iran will not accept any proposal asking for the suspension [of uranium enrichment]. The Europeans can keep their incentives," he said on Wednesday during a visit to the town of Arak, where a reactor to produce plutonium is under construction.

On Monday, in an attempt to find a diplomatic solution, European representative for a common foreign and security policy Javier Solana had promised to make Iran a "bold" offer of nuclear, economic, and possibly security guarantees, if it agrees to bow to UN pressure and halt uranium enrichment on its soil.

However, the D8 was about more than just Iran and nuclear energy. Issues such as trade figured high on the leaders’ agenda, and two agreements were signed to lower import tariffs on a range of products and help each other in customs matters.

According to officials present at the summit, the two agreements would serve as milestones for future economic cooperation among the member countries, and are aimed at boosting trade among members, which, despite a positive trend, remains abysmally low. Between 1999 and 2004, D8 intra-trade increased nearly 127 percent reaching, $33 billion in total worth. The sum is, however, still only 4 percent of the D8 countries’ total foreign trade.

"The agreements are good, but the problem is always the implementation. We have to wait and see if they will have any impact," Chandra said.