Iran's pursuit of uranium enrichment in defiance of UN security council resolutions has increased tensions with the US. Yesterday, Israel army radio reported that a senior US administration official told the Israeli government during last week's presidential visit that George Bush and Dick Cheney still intended to mount military action against Iran.
The White House dismissed the report, saying it remained committed to diplomacy and economic pressure to force Iranian compliance.
Iran's success in enriching uranium, which Tehran insists is purely for peaceful energy generation, has caused anxiety in Israel, which has an undeclared nuclear arsenal, and across the Arab world. Between February 2006 and January 2007, twelve Arab states and Turkey declared their interest in developing nuclear energy .A report by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) said the resurgence of interest brought with it the risk of a "proliferation cascade" of nuclear arms across the region.
The IISS report, Nuclear Programmes in the Middle East - In the Shadow of Iran, said the proliferation threat is "real but not imminent". There are still financial and technical obstacles to building nuclear reactors, and not necessarily a direct link between building civilian reactors and making bombs. However, the motivation was in almost all cases driven by strategic goals rather than energy requirements, the report concluded.
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"So far, none of the new nuclear aspirants in the region has been known to talk even privately about seeking nuclear weapons, at least for now," it said. "What they want is the human and technical infrastructure associated with nuclear-energy programmes in order to provide a counterbalance to Iran, both laying the ground for a possible future security hedge, and bestowing national prestige in the context of historic rivalries."
The extent of nuclear ambitions varies. The United Arab Emirates and Libya have signed nuclear cooperation agreements with France. Bahrain concluded a similar understanding with the US. Turkey, Morocco, and Egypt plan to have power plants within the next decade.
Last September Yemen announced a $15bn deal for an American company to build five reactors, but cancelled it when an anti-corruption taskforce examined the deal. Tunisia is conducting a feasibility study, while Algeria, Jordan and Syria have declared intentions to pursue nuclear energy.
Last September, Israeli bombers destroyed a building in Syria which Washington subsequently claimed was a nuclear reactor nearing completion with North Korean aid. Syria denied this.
© 2008 The Guardian