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Arab states explore nuclear power options

Scramble comes amid Iran threat

NEW YORK -- Two years ago, the leaders of Saudi Arabia told international atomic regulators that they could foresee no need for the kingdom to develop nuclear power. Today, they are scrambling to hire atomic contractors, buy nuclear hardware, and build support for a regional system of reactors.

Turkey is preparing for its first atomic plant. Egypt has announced plans to build one on its Mediterranean coast. In all, about a dozen states in the region have recently turned to the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna for help in starting their own nuclear programs.

While interest in nuclear energy is rising globally, it is unusually strong in the Middle East. "The rules have changed," King Abdullah II of Jordan recently told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. "Everybody's going for nuclear programs."

The Middle Eastern states say they only want atomic power. Some probably do. But US government and private analysts say they believe that the rush of activity is also intended to counter the threat of a nuclear Iran.

By nature, the underlying technologies of nuclear power can make electricity or, with more effort, warheads, as nations have demonstrated over the decades by turning ostensibly civilian programs into sources of bomb fuel. Iran's uneasy neighbors, analysts say, might be positioning themselves to do the same.

"One danger of Iran going nuclear has always been that it might provoke others," said Mark Fitzpatrick, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, an arms analysis group in London. "So when you see the development of nuclear power elsewhere in the region, it's a cause for some concern."

Some analysts ask why Arab states in the Persian Gulf, which hold nearly half the world's oil reserves, would want to shoulder the high costs and obligations of a temperamental form of energy. They reply that they must invest in the future, for the day when the flow of oil dries up.

But with Shi'ite Iran increasingly ascendant in the region, Sunni countries have alluded to other motives. Officials from 21 governments in and around the Middle East warned at an Arab summit meeting in March that Iran's drive for atomic technology could result in the beginning of "a grave and destructive nuclear arms race in the region."

No Arab country now has a power reactor, whose spent fuel can be mined for plutonium, one of the two favored materials -- along with uranium -- for making the cores of atom bombs. Some Arab states do, however, engage in civilian atomic research.

Analysts say states in the Middle East appear to be waiting to see which way Tehran's nuclear standoff with the UN Security Council goes before committing themselves wholeheartedly to costly programs of atomic development.