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Middle East racing to nuclear power

Shiite Iran's ambitions have spurred 13 Sunni states to declare atomic energy aims this year.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 1, 2007


This week Egypt became the 13th Middle Eastern country in the past year to say it wants nuclear power, intensifying an atomic race spurred largely by Iran's nuclear agenda, which many in the region and the West claim is cover for a weapons program.

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Experts say the nuclear ambitions of majority Sunni Muslim states such as Libya, Jordan, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia are reactions to Shiite Iran's high-profile nuclear bid, seen as linked with Tehran's campaign for greater influence and prestige throughout the Middle East.

"To have 13 states in the region say they're interested in nuclear power over the course of a year certainly catches the eye," says Mark Fitzpatrick, a former senior nonproliferation official in the US State Department who is now a fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. "The Iranian angle is the reason."

But economics are also behind this new push to explore nuclear power, at least for some of the aspirants. Egypt's oil reserves are dwindling, Jordan has no natural resources to speak of at all, and power from oil and gas has grown much more expensive for everyone. Though the day has not arrived, it's conceivable that nuclear power will be a cheaper option than traditional plants.

But analysts say the driver is Iran, which appears to be moving ahead with its nuclear program despite sanctions and threats of possible military action by the US. The Gulf Cooperation Council, a group of Saudi Arabia and the five Arab states that border the Persian Gulf, reversed a longstanding opposition to nuclear power last year.

As the closest US allies in the region and sitting on vast oil wealth, these states had said they saw no need for nuclear energy. But Fitzpatrick, as well as other analysts, say these countries now see their own declarations of nuclear intent as a way to contain Iran's influence. At least, experts say, it signals to the US how alarmed they are by a nuclear Iran.

"The rules have changed on the nuclear subject throughout the whole region," Jordan's King Abdullah, another US ally, told Israel's Haaretz newspaper early this year. "Where I think Jordan was saying, 'We'd like to have a nuclear-free zone in the area,' … [now] everybody's going for nuclear programs."

Though the US has been vociferous in its opposition to Iran's nuclear bid, particularly since the country says it's determined to establish its own nuclear fuel cycle, which would dramatically increase its ability to build a nuclear bomb, it has generally been tolerant of the nuclear ambitions of its friends in the region.

"Those states that want to pursue peaceful nuclear energy … [are] not a problem for us," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said in response to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's announcement on Monday.

Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Washington and a former Defense Department official focused on containing the spread of nuclear weapons, says he finds that hands-off approach of the Bush administration alarming.

"I think we're trying to put out a fire of proliferation with a bucket of kerosene," he says. He said he recently spoke with a senior administration official on the matter, who argued that it was better for the US to cooperate with Egypt and other countries since, in the official's view, nuclear power in these countries is "inevitable" and it's better to be in a position to influence their choices and monitor the process.

Egypt has had an on-again, off-again nuclear program since the 1950s. In the 1960s, Egypt threatened to develop a bomb largely out of anger over Israel's nuclear pursuit. Under Mr. Mubarak, who has ruled since 1981, the country has been consistent in saying it does not want nuclear weapons, and Egypt has been at the forefront of diplomatic efforts to declare the region a nuclear-weapons-free zone – a strategy it uses to target Israel's nuclear weapons.

Today, the country has a 22-megawatt research reactor north of Cairo that was built by an Argentine company and completed in 1997. A drive to develop a power plant in the 1980s stalled after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Russia.