For years, Israel was the only country in the entire Middle East with a nuclear program. That's about to change. The list of Arab states that are actively pursuing nuclear power, or seriously considering doing so, is a long one: Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, Yemen and the seven sheikhdoms of the United Arab Emirates.
Contracts have been signed, huge sums have been invested and work is under way in several instances. As if the thought of nuclear power in the hands of Iran wasn't worrisome enough, pan-Arab nuclear power is as real a prospect as ever.
Is this bad news for the Jewish state, which for some four decades has enjoyed uncontested strategic deterrence thanks to its assumed nuclear weapons stockpile? Does it signal a dangerous escalation of nuclear threats for the entire region?
Is it, on the contrary, a sign of progress for governments that for far too long have failed to offer their people the technological and financial development they need? Or is it, typically, grandiose promises on which regional leaders are unlikely to deliver?
There are enough indications to suspect all of the above.
Even more so than in North America and Europe, where hundreds of nuclear power plants have been the focus of heated public debate since shortly after World War II, the issue of atomic energy becomes particularly thorny in the supercharged milieu of the Middle East.
On one hand, an increase in the use of nuclear energy could lead to a decline in the use of petroleum, which would mean downgrading "the oil weapon" - a boon to Israel and all those wary of the power that oil brings to Arab regimes.
On the other hand, nuclear power could also lead to weapons programs that would upset a very fragile strategic balance in the region.
Now, with a very wary Israel watching, Arab states are trying to walk a tightrope that will allow them to solve their dire energy needs, and at the same time provide a viable nuclear defensive capability without antagonizing Iran, Israel or the US.
THE MOST innocent motive for Arab states' desire for nuclear power is an energy situation bordering on crisis. Most of these countries are growing rapidly, with demands on their electric grids growing just as quickly. As it is, many of them generate too little electricity for current needs, not to mention the huge leap in demand expected over the next 20-30 years.
Jordan, for example, which produces no oil and imports 80 percent of its natural gas, must import more than 550 million kilowatt-hours of electricity per year just to keep pace with current demands. If the kingdom's economy is to continue growing to alleviate the more than 15% unemployment rate, it will require vast amounts of energy - and fast.
Where doubts about the rush to go nuclear begin to creep in, however, is in the choice of nuclear energy over alternatives, especially when some of the countries choosing the nuclear path are among the world's wealthiest in terms of oil and natural gas.
"I think one would have to wonder about the need of some states for nuclear power given their own energy resources," US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in response to a recent conference in which Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council announced their keen interest in developing nuclear energy. "It's one thing for a state to be running out of natural gas in 34 years, which is the case of Egypt. It is quite another for the state to be the most oil-rich state in the world."
Egypt derives a huge amount of its electricity from hydroelectricity via the Aswan High Dam project, is an exporter of both oil and natural gas and has huge areas well suited for solar power. Kuwait, with proven oil reserves of nearly 100 billion barrels, produces three billion kWh more than it needs each year. Do countries like these really need nuclear power to create electricity and desalinate water?
"Isn't that where Iran is headed?" John Pike asks sarcastically.
"For Israel," says Pike, director of globalsecurity.org who testifies before Congress regularly on a range of security issues including nuclear proliferation, "the obvious concern is being surrounded by hostile states with nuclear weapons. You're talking about states that have not been models of political stability. You might be able to barely tolerate a nuclear-armed Egypt, or a nuclear-armed House of Saud, which is risk-averse. But who knows what kind of people might be running those places 20 years down the road? The risk of a miscalculation is always there, as is the possibility of weapons getting loose... You look at this and you say, this is just not a good picture."
Remarking on the threat of Iranian nuclear weapons, Gideon Frank, the deputy board chairman of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission, delivered a warning to the international community last month. "We can hardly remain oblivious," he said, "to intensive efforts by some in our region to develop weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery, accompanied by sustained denial of the very legitimacy of our sovereign existence and calls for our destruction."
With Israel taking a vigilant stance vis-Ã -vis Teheran's nuclear ambitions - and with a purported air strike last month on what foreign sources are saying was a nuclear facility in northeastern Syria - why would Arab states risk breaking the nuclear status quo?
Pike, agreeing with most observers, says Iran is the main reason that Arab regimes have suddenly become so intrigued by the atom. "It doesn't take a rocket scientist to connect the dots," he says. "If Iran is going to go nuclear, its neighbors don't want to be left behind."
For years, analysts said Israel's assumed nuclear weapons program would spur its neighbors to develop weapons programs of their own. Ironically, though, Israel will not be the cause of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.
"Israel's program was accepted as an accomplished fact some time ago, when the hurdles to acquiring nuclear capability looked a lot higher than they do now," notes Pike. "But in the past 10 years or so, we've seen India, Pakistan and North Korea join the club. Now, it seems, everybody's doing it. Israel made the transition at a time when international norms were tending against nuclear proliferation. The opposite is true now."
As Jordan's King Abdullah II has said, "The rules have changed. Everybody's going for nuclear programs."
FOR MANY Arab governments, though, the physical threat from Iran is not as great as the symbolic power of its nuclear program.
According to Gawdat Baghat, an Egyptian scholar who heads the Political Affairs Department at Indiana University, prestige is at least as much a motive as security.
Several years ago, he notes, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said a nuclear program would be a waste of money. This was the continuation of a long-standing policy of refraining from a costly game of catch-up with Israel on the nuclear plane, but also the practical outcome of a wealth of natural resources. Times have changed, though, as have Mubarak's domestic obligations.
"With all its natural gas, Egypt doesn't really need nuclear energy very badly right now," Baghat says. "But when you see that [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad keeps growing more popular all over the Middle East, and that a major reason for this is his insistence on becoming a nuclear power, you see just how prestigious this is, how much it is a symbol of scientific progress. Mubarak, like other Arab leaders, has to show his people that he is in the race."
Egyptians, he says, feel they are the undisputed leaders of the Middle East. So it makes the country's leadership uncomfortable that Iran, their competitor for hegemony in the region, is moving ahead of them.
This, Baghat adds, is worse than the fact that Israel has had nuclear reactors operating since the early 1960s.
"When Iran makes progress," he says, "it is different than Israel doing so. It might sound funny, but I think of it this way: When somebody you are not very close to becomes rich and buys an expensive car, it doesn't mean much to you. But if your cousin does the same thing, it gets under your skin."
Realistically, some of the countries expressing interest in nuclear power may not be able to see such an ambitious, and costly, project through.
In Yemen - an impoverished, barren country ranked one of the three most corrupt nations in the world in the recent Transparency International survey - citizens openly mock the promise of President Ali Abdullah Saleh to bring nuclear energy to the country, according to regional reports.
"I do not believe," says Baghat, "that most Arab countries have the technical infrastructure, financial resources or human resources to build a nuclear weapons program. Furthermore, there are strategic reasons for them not to do so."
BAGHAT, WHO has written extensively on why Arab states, over the past 40-50 years, have chosen to either pursue or abandon nuclear weapons, notes: "The main reason why they try to start weapons programs is security. And right now, there is no security threat."
Despite Iran's aggressive push toward nuclear weapons and its attempts to spread its Shi'ite revolution, Baghat believes Teheran is not likely to go to war against its Muslim neighbors. So, he says, the Sunni states most capable of funding a nuclear weapons program are also the least likely to do so.
"There are only five major regional powers: Israel, Iran, Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Turkey is a member of NATO, so it does not need nuclear weapons. Saudi Arabia has very strong security ties with the US. The Saudis know that, if they faced any real threat, the US would come to their aid."
That leaves Egypt, which, Baghat points out, "depends very much on US foreign aid. Since [Anwar] Sadat went to Israel in 1977, Egypt has been the second-largest recipient of American foreign aid. Without it, Egypt would collapse."
If the US were to discover that any of those three countries was using its civilian nuclear program to make weapons, Baghat says, they would "pay a very high price. There is no reason for them to antagonize the US."
To be fair, he notes, "we can never be 100% sure. These are not very democratic countries, and there is always a possibility that a madman could come to power. So to be on the safe side, there must be tight supervision from the International Atomic Energy Agency."
Similarly, Pike says, "Does Israel need to worry about its neighbors having purely peaceful programs? No. But anybody who thinks that Iran's program is entirely peaceful hasn't been paying attention. And anybody who thinks that a nuclear desalination project [in an Arab country] is going to balance Iran's weapons capability hasn't been outside recently."
The first commercial nuclear power plants in the Arab world won't be finished for eight years at least. In that time, presumably, the Iran situation will come to some sort of conclusion, and convince Arab leaders about the direction in which to take their nuclear programs. The coming years will be full of no small amount of nail-biting in Israel as well, Pike predicts.
"You would have to be concerned," he says, "that the reason some of these countries have been talking about nuclear power is that the leaders of these countries had called in their military and industrial advisers and said, 'If we had to get weapons, what would it take?' Because, rest assured, they have all done that. There's not a country in the region that hasn't had to weigh its options." n