RIYADH- Fears that an Iranian nuclear weapon might trigger an atomic arms race across the Middle East are overplayed, a US security think tank said on Tuesday, arguing that countries like Saudi Arabia face big disincentives against getting the bomb.

Western powers believe Iran is trying to develop a nuclear weapon under cover of a civilian atomic electricity program, a charge Tehran denies.

Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia, the world's biggest oil exporter, is engaged in a fierce rivalry with Shi'ite power Iran and is seen in Western countries as the most likely Middle Eastern state to seek an atomic weapon if Iran did the same.

Analysts have also said an Iranian nuclear weapons capability might persuade Egypt and Turkey to seek a bomb too.

Israel, which has never declared its atomic weapons capability, is thought to be the Middle East's only nuclear-armed power now although Iran's eastern neighbor Pakistan has atomic weapons.

Click here for full Jpost coverage of the Iranian threat

In December 2011, former Saudi intelligence chief Prince Turki al-Faisal said that if Tehran did gain nuclear weapons capability, Saudi Arabia should consider matching it.

Riyadh has also announced plans to build 17 gigawatts of atomic energy by 2032 as it moves to reduce domestic oil consumption, freeing up more crude for export.

However, a report by the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) says that although there is some risk that Saudi Arabia would seek an atomic bomb, it would more likely rely on its ally, the United States, to protect it.

"The conventional wisdom is probably wrong," the report said.

Even if Saudi Arabia wished to acquire a bomb, "significant disincentives would weigh against a mad rush by Riyadh to develop nuclear weapons".

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