For much of the past decade, a critical priority of US policy in the Middle East has been to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons and to reduce the risk of proliferation in a volatile region.
While Washington has tried to rein in Iran’s atomic ambitions, however, a new trend has been emerging: the increasing enthusiasm of America’s Arab allies to develop nuclear programmes of their own.
This week, Jordan’s Atomic Energy Commission is holding talks with a raft of companies, notably Areva of France and Mitsubishi of Japan, competing to provide technology for the country’s first nuclear power plant. The final contract should be awarded early next year.
In April, Saudi Arabia said it was building an atomic and renewable energy “city”. With this move, the Arab world’s largest economy joined 13 countries in the Middle East that have announced new plans for nuclear power stations – or revived old ones – since 2006, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
The timing may be significant: Iran began enriching uranium on a large scale in 2006. But the official line in every country is that meeting rapidly growing demand for energy is the only goal.
Despite their hydrocarbon reserves, virtually all Middle Eastern states face gas shortages as their populations grow, economies expand and energy consumption mounts. Oil producers are burning up reserves simply to keep pace with power demand that is growing by 7 or 8 per cent every year in some Gulf states.
While there is a real and pressing need for new energy sources, analysts say that Iran’s neighbours are wary of falling behind when it comes to nuclear technology.
This has triggered concerns about nuclear proliferation – or even a regional arms race – if Iran were to develop a nuclear arsenal. Sunni Arab states share western concerns that Tehran, despite its denials, is trying to develop nuclear weapons.
“This region looks around and they find all the non-Arabs have a nuclear programme, or are on their way. They look at India, Pakistan, Israel and now Iran,” says Mustafa Alani, an analyst at the Dubai-based Gulf Research Centre.
“There’s a feeling this region made a mistake when they opted for zero nuclear energy for the last 40 years, and the Iranian programme was a wake-up call. The intention is civilian, but you need the know-how at least.”
The key factor will be whether the countries concerned also try to master the full nuclear fuel cycle, something that Iran has insisted on achieving.
The United Arab Emirates has won praise from the US by promising not to go down this route. However, officials in Jordan say the country has not ruled out enriching uranium on its territory, while adding it has no plans to do so.
David Cox, an executive at Poyry, a consultancy hired to help Saudi Arabia, has been quoted as saying that “enrichment could happen” in the kingdom.
Such statements are likely to raise concerns in Israel and Washington. “It’s not just energy, it’s also a way to respond to Iran and in a sense to say, ‘well if they can have it and Israel can have it, we can have it’,” says David Albright at the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington.
“What happens is they don’t define the ‘it’, they try to make that ‘it’ ambiguous. But clearly it’s the idea that somehow nuclear energy gives you status, particularly if you have an enrichment plan and they are well aware that . . . opens the door to be able to build nuclear weapons.”
Others, however, take a more sanguine view. Holger Rogner, from the International Atomic Energy Agency, says there is no reason for concern if nuclear programmes comply with safeguards.
"I don't see any indications that would raise immediate concerns about proliferation,” he says. “They first of all are thinking about power."