New York Times: 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. The New York Times
By WILLIAM J. BROAD and DAVID E. SANGER
Published: April 15, 2007
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.
So, too, Turkey is preparing for its first atomic plant. And Egypt has announced plans to build one on its Mediterranean coast. In all, roughly 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. Everybodys going for nuclear programs.
The Middle East states say they only want atomic power. Some probably do. But United States 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. Irans uneasy neighbors, analysts say, may 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, its a cause for some concern.
Some analysts ask why Arab states in the Persian Gulf, which hold nearly half the worlds 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 Shiite 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 a meeting of Arab leaders in March that Irans drive for atomic technology could result in the beginning of a grave and destructive nuclear arms race in the region.
In Washington, officials are seizing on such developments to build their case for stepping up pressure on Iran. President Bush has talked privately to experts on the Middle East about his fears of a Sunni bomb, and his concerns that countries in the Middle East may turn to the only nuclear-armed Sunni state, Pakistan, for help.
Even so, that concern is tempered by caution. In an interview on Thursday, a senior administration official said that the recent announcements were clearly part of an effort to send a signal to Iran that two can play this game. And, he added, among the non-Iranian programs Ive heard about in the region, I have not heard talk of reprocessing or enrichment, which is what would worry us the most.
The Middle East has seen hints of a regional nuclear-arms race before. After Israel obtained its first weapon four decades ago, several countries took steps down the nuclear road. But many analysts say it is Irans atomic intransigence that has now prodded the Sunni powers into getting serious about hedging their bets and, like Iran, financing them with $65-a-barrel oil.
Nows the time to worry, said Geoffrey Kemp, a Middle East expert at the Nixon Center, a Washington policy institute. The Iranians have to worry, too. The idea that theyll emerge as the regional hegemon is silly. There will be a very serious counterreaction, certainly in conventional military buildups but also in examining the nuclear option.
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 caution that a chain reaction of nuclear emulation is not foreordained. States in the Middle East appear to be waiting to see which way Tehrans nuclear standoff with the United Nations Security Council goes before committing themselves wholeheartedly to costly programs of atomic development.
Even if Middle Eastern nations do obtain nuclear power, political alliances and arms-control agreements could still make individual states hesitate before crossing the line to obtain warheads. Many may eventually decide that the costs and risks outweigh the benefits as South Korea, Taiwan, South Africa and Libya did after investing heavily in arms programs.
But many diplomats and analysts say that the Sunni Arab governments are so anxious about Irans nuclear progress that they would even, grudgingly, support a United States military strike against Iran.
If push comes to shove, if the choice is between an Iranian nuclear bomb and a U.S. military strike, then the Arab gulf states have no choice but to quietly support the U.S., said Christian Koch, director of international studies at the Gulf Research Center, a private group in Dubai.
Decades ago, it was Israels drive for nuclear arms that brought about the regions first atomic jitters. Even some Israeli leaders found themselves preaching caution because of the reaction, said Avner Cohen, a senior fellow at the University of Maryland and the author of Israel and the Bomb.
Egypt responded first. In 1960, after the disclosure of Israels work on a nuclear reactor, Cairo threatened to acquire atomic arms and sought its own reactor. Years of technical and political hurdles ultimately ended that plan.
Iraq came next. But in June 1981, Israeli fighter jets bombed its reactor just days before engineers planned to install the radioactive core. The bombing ignited a global debate over how close Iraq had come to nuclear arms. It also prompted Iran, then fighting a war with Iraq, to embark on a covert response.
Alireza Assar, a nuclear adviser to Irans Ministry of Defense who later defected, said he attended a secret meeting in 1987 at which the commander in chief of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps said Iran had to do whatever was necessary to achieve victory. We need to have all the technical requirements in our possession, Dr. Assar recalled the commander as saying, even the means to build a nuclear bomb.
In all, Iran toiled in secret for 18 years before its nuclear efforts were disclosed in 2003. Intelligence agencies and nuclear experts now estimate that the Iranians are 2 to 10 years away from having the means to make a uranium-based bomb. It says its uranium enrichment work is entirely peaceful and meant only to fuel reactors.
The International Atomic Energy Agencys concerns grew when inspectors found evidence of still-unexplained ties between Irans ostensibly peaceful program and its military, including work on high explosives, missiles and warheads. That combination, the inspectors said in early 2006, suggested a military nuclear dimension.
Before such disclosures, few if any states in the Middle East attended the atomic agencys meetings on nuclear power development. Now, roughly a dozen are doing so and drawing up atomic plans.
The newly interested states include Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, Yemen and the seven sheikdoms of the United Arab Emirates Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Dubai, Al Fujayrah, Ras al Khaymah, Sharjah, and Umm al Qaywayn.
They generally ask what they need to do for the introduction of power, said R. Ian Facer, a nuclear power engineer who works for the I.A.E.A. at its headquarters in Vienna. The agency teaches the basics of nuclear energy. In exchange, states must undergo periodic inspections to make sure their civilian programs have no military spinoffs.
Saudi Arabia, since reversing itself on reactors, has become a whirlwind of atomic interest. It recently invited President Vladimir V. Putin to become the first Russian head of state to visit the desert kingdom. He did so in February, offering a range of nuclear aid.
Diplomats and analysts say Saudi Arabia leads the drive for nuclear power within the Gulf Cooperation Council, based in Riyadh. In addition to the Saudis, the council includes Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates Washingtons closest Arab allies. Its member states hug the western shores of the Persian Gulf and control about 45 percent of the worlds oil reserves.
Late last year, the council announced that it would embark on a nuclear energy program. Its officials have said they want to get it under way by 2009.
We will develop it openly, Prince Saud al-Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister, said of the councils effort. We want no bombs. All we want is a whole Middle East that is free from weapons of mass destruction, an Arab reference to both Israels and Irans nuclear programs.
In February, the council and the I.A.E.A. struck a deal to work together on a nuclear power plan for the Arab gulf states. Abdul Rahman ibn Hamad al-Attiya, the councils secretary general, told reporters in March that the agency would provide technical expertise and that the council would hire a consulting firm to speed its nuclear deliberations.
Already, Saudi officials are traveling regularly to Vienna, and I.A.E.A. officials to Riyadh, the Saudi capital. Its a natural right, Mohamed ElBaradei, the atomic agencys director general, said recently of the councils energy plan, estimating that carrying it out might take up to 15 years.
Every gulf state except Iraq has declared an interest in nuclear power. By comparison, 15 percent of South American nations and 20 percent of African ones have done so.
One factor in that exceptional level of interest is that the Persian Gulf states have the means. Typically, a large commercial reactor costs up to $4 billion. The six countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council are estimated to be investing in nonnuclear projects valued at more than $1 trillion.
Another factor is Iran. Its shores at some points are visible across the waters of the gulf called the Arabian Gulf by Arabs and the Persian Gulf by Iranians.
The council wants its own regional initiative to counter the possible threat from an aggressive neighbor armed with nuclear weapons, said Nicole Stracke, an analyst at the Gulf Research Center. Its members, she added, felt they could no longer lag behind Iran.
A similar technology push is under way in Turkey, where long-simmering plans for nuclear power have caught fire. Last year, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called for three plants. We want to benefit from nuclear energy as soon as possible, he said. Turkey plans to put its first reactor near the Black Sea port of Sinop, and to start construction this year.
Egypt, too, is moving forward. Last year, it announced plans for a reactor at El-Dabaa, about 60 miles west of Alexandria. We do not start from a vacuum, President Hosni Mubarak told the governing National Democracy Partys annual conference. His remark was understated given Cairos decades of atomic research.
Robert Joseph, a former under secretary of state for arms control and international security who is now Mr. Bushs envoy on nuclear nonproliferation, visited Egypt earlier this year. According to officials briefed on the conversations, officials from the Ministry of Electricity indicated that if Egypt was confident that it could have a reliable supply of reactor fuel, it would have little desire to invest in the costly process of manufacturing its own nuclear fuel the enterprise that experts fear could let Iran build a bomb.
Other officials, especially those responsible for Egypts security, focused more on the possibility of further proliferation in the region if Iran succeeded in its effort to achieve a nuclear weapons capability.
I dont know how much of it is real, Mr. Joseph said of a potential arms race. But it is becoming urgent for us to shape the future expansion of nuclear energy in a way that reduces the risks of proliferation, while meeting our energy and environmental goals.