- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 10, 2006

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — The oil-rich Arab states on the Persian Gulf said yesterday that they will consider starting a joint nuclear program for peaceful purposes.

The announcement appeared to be a muscle-flexing gesture toward Iran, which announced a day earlier that it has begun installing 3,000 centrifuges in an expansion of an uranium-enrichment program that the United States thinks is aimed at producing nuclear weapons.

Issued after a two-day meeting of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the statement said the group “commissioned a study” on setting up “a common program in the area of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes,” which would abide by international standards and laws.

The statement read by Abdul Rahman al-Attiyah, secretary-general of the political and economic alliance, did not elaborate on the plan by the group — Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman.

Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, told reporters after the closing session that the group did not want to be “misunderstood,” saying its aim “is to obtain the technology for peaceful purposes, no more no less.”

“Gulf states are not known for seeking hegemony or threatening power, they seek stability and peace,” he said.

However the area’s Arab nations have expressed worry over the Iranian nuclear program. Iran also insists its program is solely for peaceful purposes, including generating electricity.

Arab leaders also are concerned over Iran’s increasing influence in the region through its links to the Shi’ite Muslim parties that dominate Iraq’s government and its backing for the Palestinians’ Hamas-led government and the Hezbollah militant group in Lebanon.

An adviser to the Saudi government said last month that Riyadh would become more deeply involved in Iraq if the Americans withdrew prematurely, even at risk of outright war with Iran.

Kuwaiti columnist Fouad al-Hashem called yesterday’s announcement a “clear, strong and courageous” message to Iran that the GCC nations will not sit and watch while Iran presses forward with its nuclear program.

“They are saying that we can, with the help of our allies, balance the power and build our own reactors even if we don’t need them,” said Mr. al-Hashem, who writes for the Al-Watan newspaper. “They are saying, ‘We’re here, and we have the whole civilized world on our side.’ ”

Arab states around the Persian Gulf have not previously pursued nuclear power because they possess substantial oil resources and have lacked the scientific know-how, but Saudi Arabia said last month it was experimenting with nuclear technology for medical purposes.

Iran’s first reactor — being built in Bushehr just across the Gulf from Kuwait and the eastern coast of Saudi Arabia — is projected to begin operating in late 2007, and its Arab neighbors have said they fear an accident would endanger their citizens and the environment.

Iran’s neighbors also fear a military clash between Tehran and United States and its ally Israel. Gulf nations with U.S. military bases — Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar — fear Iran could retaliate against them.

Other Arab countries also have expressed interest in nuclear programs. In an October warning about the threat of atomic arms proliferation, the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency said Egypt, Jordan and Yemen are among nations around the world considering nuclear programs.

Israel has long been thought to have nuclear bombs. Israel neither acknowledges nor denies possessing such arms, but it was estimated to have 100-200 nuclear warheads in a 2006 report by the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.

The GCC leaders yesterday reiterated their position that the nuclear standoff between Iran and the West should be “resolved peacefully,” and they called on Israel to join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which calls for an atomic weapons-free Middle East.

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