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.
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.
In a nationally televised speech Monday, Mubarak said nuclear power is an "integral part of Egypt's national security" while also promising that the country would not seek the bomb. Other Egyptian officials say the country is planning on having a working reactor within a decade, though analysts say that's an optimistic time line.
Egypt's nuclear plans have been reinvigorated in recent years, with Mubarak's son, Gamal, widely seen in Egypt as his father's favored successor, calling for the building of a reactor. Mubarak discussed nuclear power cooperation on state visits to Russia and China last year.
"They feel politically threatened by Iran's nuclear program, they've pointed out rightly that Israel [hasn't been] a member of [nonproliferation] treaties for many years," says Jon Wolfsthal, a nonproliferation expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "Of course there is economic logic: If they can sell whatever oil they have for $93 a barrel instead of using it, that's attractive … but it shouldn't be assumed that it's all benign."
For Egypt, the allure of nuclear power is apparent. Its oil consumption is growing and electricity demand is growing at about 7 percent a year.
"Egypt can absolutely make a legitimate case for nuclear energy," says Mr. Fitzpatrick. "Its reserves are dwindling, it needs the oil and gas for export, and it needs to diversify its energy resources."
Even major oil producers such as Saudi Arabia are, along with Iran, arguing that they need nuclear power. They say it's better to sell their oil than to burn it at home.
But some analysts argue that nuclear power remains an economic loser. Mr. Sokolski says that when state subsidies to nuclear power are removed, nuclear plants are not economically viable. "If it was, private banks would be financing nuclear plants without loan guarantees. They can't do it and make money yet."
Of course whenever the topic of nuclear power comes up, particularly in the Middle East, concerns about the possible spread of nuclear weapons are not far behind. Experts who follow the nuclear weapons question say assurances of only pursuing peaceful objectives, as have been given by all the countries pursuing nuclear power, Iran included, shouldn't be taken at face value.
"Although Egypt does not feel directly threatened by Iran, it does feel its own power and influence in the region threatened by a resurgent nuclear armed Iran," says Fitzpatrick.
"There are a lot of countries in the region who have expressed interest in nuclear power, and I think there are good reasons to be concerned about this interest and the timing of this interest," says Mr. Wolfsthal. "Nuclear power has had economic arguments in its favor for a decade, but the fact is these programs are only coming to a head in light of the Iranian program."
Wolfsthal says the key issues in the coming years will be whether Egypt contracts a turn-key plant from a foreign company – which would minimize the amount of skill and technology transferred to Egyptian engineers – or if it will pursue nuclear partnerships that broaden its knowledge and skills bases.
Will they pursue their own nuclear fuel cycle, which, he says, would make little economic sense and would be a clear "red flag" of intent to develop a weapon, or will they buy nuclear fuel from abroad? "If you are interested in having the capability of building a nuclear weapon, the best way to start is by building up your nuclear power infrastructure," he says. "The same people that help you design and build nuclear reactors have many of the skill sets you will need if you are going to build a nuclear weapon."
Fitzpatrick agrees that if Egypt promises not to develop a nuclear fuel cycle and would agree to more intrusive inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency, there would be little reason for concern, though he doubts those commitments will be made. "Egypt won't take those steps because it says its hands can't be bound anymore while Israel's hands are unbound. They already resent the nuclear asymmetry with Israel, and a nuclear armed Iran on top of that adds too much for them."