NY Times makes mountain out of molehill


Richard Moore

yet another 'demonize Iran' story...

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April 15, 2007

Eye on Iran, Rivals Pursuing Nuclear Power

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.

³The rules have changed,² King Abdullah II of Jordan recently told the Israeli 
newspaper Haaretz. ³Everybody¹s going for nuclear programs.²

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. Iran¹s uneasy 
neighbors, analysts say, may be positioning themselves to do the same.

³One danger of Iran going nuclear has always been that it might provoke others,²
said Mark Fitzpatrick, a senior fellow at the International Institute for 
Strategic Studies, an arms analysis group in London. ³So when you see the 
development of nuclear power elsewhere in the region, it¹s a cause for some 

Some analysts ask why Arab states in the Persian Gulf, which hold nearly half 
the world¹s 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 Iran¹s drive for atomic 
technology could result in the beginning of ³a grave and destructive nuclear 
arms race in the region.²

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 ³Sunni bomb,² 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 ³clearly 
part of an effort to send a signal to Iran that two can play this game.² And, he
added, ³among the non-Iranian programs I¹ve heard about in the region, I have 
not heard talk of reprocessing or enrichment, which is what would worry us the 

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 Iran¹s 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.

³Now¹s the time to worry,² said Geoffrey Kemp, a Middle East expert at the Nixon
Center, a Washington policy institute. ³The Iranians have to worry, too. The 
idea that they¹ll 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.²

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

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 Tehran¹s 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 Iran¹s nuclear progress that they would even, grudgingly, support 
a United States military strike against Iran.

³If 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.,² said Christian Koch, director of international studies at the
Gulf Research Center, a private group in Dubai.

Decades ago, it was Israel¹s drive for nuclear arms that brought about the 
region¹s first atomic jitters. Even some Israeli leaders found themselves 
³preaching caution because of the reaction,² said Avner Cohen, a senior fellow 
at the University of Maryland and the author of ³Israel and the Bomb.²

Egypt responded first. In 1960, after the disclosure of Israel¹s 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 Iran¹s 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. ³We need to have all the technical requirements in
our possession,² Dr. Assar recalled the commander as saying, even the means to 
³build a nuclear bomb.²

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 Agency¹s concerns grew when inspectors found 
evidence of still-unexplained ties between Iran¹s ostensibly peaceful program 
and its military, including work on high explosives, missiles and warheads. That
combination, the inspectors said in early 2006, suggested a ³military nuclear 

Before such disclosures, few if any states in the Middle East attended the 
atomic agency¹s 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.

³They generally ask what they need to do for the introduction of power,² 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 ‹ 
Washington¹s closest Arab allies. Its member states hug the western shores of 
the Persian Gulf and control about 45 percent of the world¹s 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.

³We will develop it openly,² Prince Saud al-Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister, 
said of the council¹s effort. ³We want no bombs. All we want is a whole Middle 
East that is free from weapons of mass destruction,² an Arab reference to both 
Israel¹s and Iran¹s 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 council¹s 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. ³It¹s a natural right,² Mohamed 
ElBaradei, the atomic agency¹s director general, said recently of the council¹s 
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 ³its own regional initiative to counter the possible threat 
from an aggressive neighbor armed with nuclear weapons,² said Nicole Stracke, an
analyst at the Gulf Research Center. Its members, she added, ³felt they could no
longer lag behind Iran.²

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. ³We want to benefit from nuclear energy as soon as 
possible,² 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. ³We do not start from a vacuum,² 
President Hosni Mubarak told the governing National Democracy Party¹s annual 
conference. His remark was understated given Cairo¹s decades of atomic research.

Robert Joseph, a former under secretary of state for arms control and 
international security who is now Mr. Bush¹s 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 Egypt¹s security, focused more
on the possibility of further proliferation in the region if Iran succeeded in 
its effort to achieve a nuclear weapons capability.

³I don¹t know how much of it is real,² Mr. Joseph said of a potential arms race.
³But 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.²

Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company

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