VIENNA - As Iran races ahead with an illicit uranium enrichment effort, nearly a dozen other Middle East nations are moving forward on their own civilian nuclear programs. In the latest development, a team of eight U.N. experts on Friday ended a weeklong trip to Saudi Arabia to provide nuclear guidance to officials from six Persian Gulf countries.
Diplomats and analysts view the Saudi trip as the latest sign that Iran's suspected weapons program has helped spark a chain reaction of nuclear interest among its Arab rivals, which some fear will lead to a scramble for atomic weapons in the world's most volatile region.
The International Atomic Energy Agency sent the team of nuclear experts to Riyadh, the Saudi capital, to advise the Gulf Cooperation Council on building nuclear energy plants. Together, the council members - Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the seven sheikdoms of the United Arab Emirates - control nearly half the world's known oil reserves.
Other nations that have said they plan to construct civilian nuclear reactors or have sought technical assistance and advice from the IAEA, the Vienna-based United Nations nuclear watchdog agency, in the last year include Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Turkey and Yemen, as well as several North African nations.
None of the governments has disclosed plans to build nuclear weapons. But Iran's 18-year secret nuclear effort and its refusal to comply with current U.N. Security Council demands have raised concerns that the Arab world will decide it needs to counter a potentially nuclear-armed Iran. The same equipment can enrich uranium to fuel civilian reactors or, in time and with further enrichment, atomic bombs.
"There is no doubt that countries around the gulf are worried ... about whether Iran is seeking nuclear weapons," Gregory L. Schulte, the U.S. representative to U.N. agencies in Vienna, said in an interview. "They're worried about whether it will prompt a nuclear arms race in the region, which would be to no one's benefit."
The United States has long supported the spread of peaceful nuclear energy under strict international safeguards. Schulte said Washington's diplomatic focus remained on stopping Iran before it could produce fuel for nuclear weapons, rather than on trying to restrict nations from developing nuclear power for generating electricity.
But those empowered to monitor and regulate civilian nuclear programs around the world are worried. Mohamed ElBaradei, director-general of the IAEA, warned Thursday that the surge of interest in sensitive nuclear technology raised the risk of weapons proliferation. Without singling out any nation, he cautioned that some governments might insist on enriching their own uranium to ensure a steady supply of reactor fuel.
"The concern is that by mastering the fuel cycle, countries move dangerously close to nuclear weapons capability," ElBaradei told a disarmament conference in Luxembourg.
Iran is the obvious case in point. Tehran this week defied another U.N. Security Council deadline by which it was to freeze its nuclear program. The IAEA reported that Iran instead was accelerating uranium enrichment without having yet built the reactors that would need the nuclear fuel. At the same time, the IAEA complained, Iran's diminishing cooperation had made it impossible to confirm Tehran's claims that the program is only for peaceful purposes.
That has unnerved Iran's neighbors as well as members of the Security Council.
"We have the right if the Iranians are going to insist on their right to develop their civilian nuclear program," said Mustafa Alani, a security expert at the Gulf Research Center, a think tank based in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. "We tell the Iranians, 'We have no problem with you developing civilian nuclear energy, but if you're going to turn your nuclear program into a weapons program, we'll do the same.' "
Iran sought to rally Arab support for its nuclear program at the World Economic Forum meeting of business and political leaders this month in Jordan.
"Iran will be a partner, a brotherly partner, and will share its capabilities with the people of the region," Mohammed J.A. Larijani, a former deputy foreign minister, told reporters.
Arab officials were cool to his approach, however, and openly questioned Iran's intentions.
The IAEA team's weeklong foray to Saudi Arabia followed ElBaradei's visit to the kingdom in April. The Gulf Cooperation Council plans to present the results of its study on developing nuclear plants to the leaders of council nations in the Omani capital of Muscat in December.
"They don't say it, but everyone can see that [Iran] is at least one of the reasons behind the drive to obtaining the nuclear technology," said Salem Ahmad Sahab, a professor of political science at King Abdulaziz University in Jidda, Saudi Arabia. "If the neighbors are capable of obtaining the technology, why not them?"
Officially, leaders of the Arab gulf states say they are eager to close a technology gap with Iran, as well as with Israel, which operates two civilian reactors and is widely believed to have built at least 80 nuclear warheads since the 1960s. Israel does not acknowledge its nuclear arsenal under a policy aimed at deterring regional foes while avoiding an arms race.
Advocates argue that the gulf states need nuclear energy despite their vast oil and natural gas reserves.
The region's growing economies suffer occasional summer power outages, and the parched climate makes the nations there susceptible to water shortages, which can be offset by the energy-intensive processing of seawater.
"The promising future of nuclear energy in electricity generation and desalination can make it a source for meeting increasing needs," Abdulrahman Attiya, the Kuwaiti head of the Gulf Cooperation Council, told the group this week in Riyadh.
Attiya also cited long-term economic and environmental advantages to nuclear energy.
"A large part of Gulf Cooperation Council oil and gas products can be used for export in light of expected high prices and demand," he said. "It will also help to limit the increase in carbon dioxide emissions in the gulf region."
It remains unclear how many countries will carry through on ambitious and enormously expensive nuclear projects. In some cases, analysts say, the nuclear announcements may be intended for domestic prestige, and as a signal to Iran that others intend to check its emergence as a regional power. As a result, some analysts say fears of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East are overblown.
"Those who caricature what's going on as Sunni concern about a Shiite bomb are really oversimplifying the case," said Martin Malin, a nuclear expert at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, referring to Sunni Muslim-led Arab countries and Shiite Muslim-led Iran.
Aggressive international monitoring, he contended, could ensure that nuclear energy programs don't secretly morph into weapons capabilities.
"If what Jordan is really concerned about is energy, and the U.S. is concerned about weapons, all kinds of oversight can be provided," Malin said.
A Russian diplomat here similarly cautioned that Iran's influence on other nations' nuclear plans might be overstated. "I should be very cautious about any connection between these two things," he said. "We don't deny that even Iran has the right to peaceful nuclear activities."
Although enthusiasm for prospective nuclear programs appears strongest in the Middle East, governments elsewhere have displayed interest in atomic power after years of decline in the industry that followed the 1979 reactor accident at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania and the far worse 1986 radiation leak at Chernobyl in Ukraine. About 30 countries operate nuclear reactors for energy, and that number seems certain to grow.
"There's certainly a renaissance of interest," said an IAEA official who works on the issue. "And there's likely to be a renaissance in construction over the next few decades."
IAEA officials say the largest growth in nuclear power is likely to occur in China, India, Russia, the United States and South Africa, with Argentina, Finland and France following close behind. The United States has 103 operating plants, more than any other country, and as many as 31 additional plants are under consideration or have begun the regulatory process.
And there are other nations in line. Oil-rich Nigeria and Indonesia are preparing to build nuclear plants. Belarus and Vietnam have approached the IAEA for advice. Algeria signed a deal with Russia in January on possible nuclear cooperation. Morocco and Poland are said to be considering nuclear power. Myanmar disclosed plans to purchase a Russian research reactor.
Even Sudan, one of the world's poorest countries, has expressed interest.
"When Sudan shows up, we say, 'You're in a real early stage and here's what you need. A law. Get people trained. Build roads. And so on,' " the IAEA official said.
So far, the nuclear programs around Iran are in the early planning stages. Alani, the security expert in Dubai, said most of the nations in the region were scoping out the possibilities but had made no final decisions or begun constructing facilities.
"They feel it's a right and significant move at least to put [their] foot in the door of civilian nuclear energy," he said. "It's not a race, not yet."
Drogin reported from Vienna and Daragahi from Dubai.
Copyright 2007 Los Angeles Times