Iran is still probably five to 10 years away from gaining the ability to make nuclear fuel or nuclear bombs. But its programme is already sending nuclear ripples through West Asia. The race to match Iran’s capabilities has begun.

Almost a dozen Muslim nations have declared their interest in nuclear energy programmes in the past year. This unprecedented demand for nuclear programmes is all the more disturbing, paired with the unseemly rush of nuclear salesman eager to supply the coveted technology.

While US officials were reaching a new nuclear agreement with India last month, President Nicolas Sarkozy of France signed a nuclear cooperation deal with Libya and agreed to help the United Arab Emirates launch its own civilian nuclear programme. Indicating that this could be just the beginning of a major sale and supply effort, Sarkozy declared that the West should trust Arab states with nuclear technology.

Sarkozy has a point: No one can deny Arab states access to nuclear technology, especially as they are acquiring it under existing international rules and agreeing to the inspection of International Atomic Energy Agency officials.

But is this really about meeting demands for electric power and desalinization plants?

There is only one nuclear power reactor in the entire West Asia—the one under construction in Busher, Iran. In all of Africa there are only two, both in South Africa. (Israel has a research reactor near Dimona, as do several other states.) Suddenly, after multiple energy crises over the 60 years of the nuclear age, these countries that control over one-fourth of the world's oil supplies are investing in nuclear power ­programmes. This is not about energy; it is a nuclear hedge against Iran.

Changing rules

King Adbdullah of Jordan admitted as much in a January 2007 interview when he said: “The rules have changed on the nuclear subject throughout the whole region... After this summer everybody’s going for nuclear programmes." He was referring to the war in Lebanon last year between Israel and Hezbollah, perceived in the region as evidence of Iran’s growing clout. Other leaders are not as frank in public, but confide similar sentiments in private conversations.

Here is where the nuclear surge currently stands. Egypt and Turkey, two of Iran’s main rivals, are in the lead. Both have flirted with nuclear weapons programmes in the past and both have announced ambitious plans for the construction of new power reactors. Gamal Mubarak, son of the current Egyptian President and his likely successor, says the country will build four power reactors, with the first to be completed within the next 10 years. Turkey will build three new reactors, with the first, beginning later this year.

Not to be outdone, Saudi Arabia and the five other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates) at the end of 2006 “commissioned a joint study on the use of nuclear technology for peaceful purposes." Algeria and Russia quickly signed an agreement on nuclear development in January 2007, with France, South Korea, China and the US also jockeying for nuclear sales to this oil state.

Jordan announced that it, too, wants nuclear power. King Abdullah met Canada's prime minister in July and discussed the purchase of heavy water Candu reactors. Morocco wants assistance from the atomic energy agency to acquire nuclear technology and in March sponsored an international conference on Physics and Technology of Nuclear Reactors.

Political message

Finally, the Arab League has provided an overall umbrella for these initiatives when, at the end of its summit meeting in March, it “called on the Arab states to expand the use of peaceful nuclear technology in all domains serving continuous development."

Perhaps these states are truly motivated to join the “nuclear renaissance" promoted by the nuclear power industry and a desire to counter global warming. But the main message to the West from these moderate Arab and Muslim leaders is political, not industrial. “We can't trust you," they are saying, “You are failing to contain Iran and we need to prepare." It is not too late to prove them wrong.

Instead of seeing this nuclear surge as a new market, the countries with nuclear technology to sell have a moral and strategic obligation to ensure that their business does not result in West Asia going from a region with one nuclear weapon state—Israel—to one with three, four, or five nuclear nations.

If the existing territorial, ethnic, and political disputes continue unresolved, this is a recipe for nuclear war.

This means that nuclear technology states must be just as energetic in promoting the resolution of these conflicts as they are in promoting their products. It means building the unity of the US, Europe, Russia and the regional states to effectively contain the Iranian programme.

Finally, it means that engaging with Tehran is even more crucial to halt not only the Iranian nuclear programme, but those that will soon start to materialize around it.

Joseph Cirincione is director for nuclear policy at the Center for American Progress and author of Bomb Scare: The History and Future of Nuclear Weapons. Uri Leventer is a graduate student at the Harvard University John F. Kennedy School of Government.Write to us at feedback