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A Mideast Nuke Race

By Peter Brookes

We may have a nuclear-arms race on our hands in the Middle East.

Last week, four key Arab states, including Egypt and Saudi Arabia, told the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that they were launching their own nuclear programs.

Sure, these are officially peaceful energy programs - but everyone and his brother will suspect that they'll be accompanied by some sort of covert nuclear-weapons research. After all, Iran - the Middle Eastern state that virtually the entire word believes is on a beeline to nukes - has long insisted its program is purely for power generation, too.

And, of course, the seeming lack of progress in getting Iran to curtail its nuclear quest gives nearby states serious motivation to get nukes of their own. Saudi Arabia, Egypt - indeed, every Arab regime except Syria - see Iran as an implacable rival. (And some claim even Syria wants out of its alliance with the mullahs.)

Plus the region's Sunni Arab regimes fear the rise of Shia Persian Iran. Iran aspires to dominate the region and achieve superpower status, placing itself squarely atop the Muslim world - no doubt in large part at the expense of the region's current Sunni Arab rulers.

Then, of course, there are the multiple reasons everyone else doesn't buy Iran's atomic denials. For instance, Tehran:

* Had a relationship with A.Q. Khan, father of Pakistan's bomb and proliferator extraordinaire.

* Kept its nuclear program hidden away from the IAEA for 20 years.

* Refuses to allow the thorough inspections the IAEA wants to conduct now.

* Has a growing arsenal of ballistic missiles of ever-greater range and capability.

Tehran's threat last Friday to cut ties with the IAEA if the United Nations passes another resolution against Iran doesn't help matters, either. Nor do its recent war games - or its October decision to put more uranium-enrichment centrifuges online at Natanz.

No wonder Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Algeria and Morocco all of a sudden expressed interest in nuclear power last week. Or that Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey and Yemen have openly talked of going nuclear in recent months, too.

Interest in Egypt, the Arab world's first nuclear power state, is advanced. Just last week, President Hosni Mubarak discussed restarting Cairo's nuclear program while in China. (Egypt closed its nuclear program after the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.) Mubarak also recently visited Russia to discuss the purchase of nuclear reactors. Moscow - which built Iran's reactor at Bushehr - is keenly interested in contracts to build the three-plus Egypt's planning along the Mediterranean Sea.

OK, with oil and gas prices still high, perhaps these states just want to diversify their energy sources. But Saudi Arabia? Does the king of the oil world really think it's going to run out?

Note that the Saudis have already started a conventional military buildup, to balance the growing clout of Iran - which sits just across the Persian Gulf (which some Arabs think is a misnomer, by the way). And, of course, there are those persistent rumors that Saudi Arabia is involved with the Pakistanis on nuclear issues - indeed, Riyadh may have helped finance Islamabad's 1998 nuclear breakout.

The problem is that every state that goes nuclear gives its neighbors strong reason to do likewise as a hedge against uncertainty. Hence the alarm over the Arab states' sudden, simultaneous announcement. Their peaceful nuclear intentions might be above reproach, but it's hard to predict how their nuclear know-how and material (some supplied by the IAEA) will be used down the road. Nor do we know how their non-nuclear neighbors will react to their nuclear programs.

There is little doubt that these states' decisions to start or restart nuclear programs were guided and tempered at least in part by their plummeting faith in the United Nations' ability to rein in Iran's nuclear program.

Building a nuclear program takes six to 10 years and considerable expense (e.g., $1 billion-plus per reactor). Eyeing Iran's strategic resurgence, these leaders may well think they don't have a moment to waste.

The question is: In a number of years, if these programs go forward, will we see a map of the Middle East dotted with new peaceful nuclear-power reactors - or a map dotted with new nuclear-weapons states?

Heritage Foundation Senior Fellow Peter Brookes is a columnist for The New York Post , retired Navy Reserve commander and former deputy assistant secretary of defense.

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