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Arab Countries Voice Concern, Urge Caution Over Iran's Nuclear Program

By Golnaz Esfandiari

Egypt and Saudi Arabia reportedly urged the United States last week to give talks with Iran more time before pressing for a referral to the United Nations Security Council. Arab countries have not yet stated whether they would support a referral to the UN of Iran's nuclear program at the 2 February emergency meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The meeting was called by EU countries after Iran broke UN seals on its nuclear equipment on 10 January and announced that it will resume nuclear-fuel research. The EU-3 -- Germany, Britain, and France -- said talks with Iran have reached an impasse and it is time for the Security Council to take up the case. Analysts in Cairo and Dubai say many Arab countries share Western concern over Iran's nuclear activities and believe Iran's case should be given to the Security Council.

PRAGUE, 23 January 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Agencies reported last week, quoting unidentified officials, that Saudi and Egyptian leaders urged U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney -- during his recent trip to the region -- to give negotiations a chance before pressing for a referral of Iran's nuclear dossier to the UN Security Council for possible sanctions.

Following Cheney's talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Egyptian presidential spokesman Suleiman Awad said: "We call for Iran to show more flexibility and cooperation, and we call for a continuation of dialogue with Iran."

A 16 January statement by Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmad Aboul Gheit also said that dialogue was still the best way to get out of the current crisis and reach a deal on Iran's nuclear program.

Calling For Restraint

Muhammad Abdel Salam, a senior nuclear expert at Cairo's Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, told RFE/RL that Egypt and Saudi Arabia are concerned that a referral of Iran's nuclear case to the Security Council could worsen the current crisis and sharpen the confrontation.

But he adds that the two major Arab powers could support a referral of Iran's case to the Security Council at the IAEA emergency meeting scheduled for 2 February.

"Both states (Saudi Arabia and Egypt) feel threatened [by Iran's nuclear activities]; they don't want to [have] another military crisis in the area so if the international community goes for a Security Council option, they will join the consensus," he said.

Mustafa Alani, a senior consultant with the Gulf Research Center in Dubai, also tells RFE/RL that Iran's nuclear program is considered a serious problem and a threat by many countries in the region. He says Arab countries neighboring Iran are in favor of increasing pressure on the Islamic Republic and sending Iran's nuclear dossier to the UN.

"There is a lot of concern about [Iran's nuclear] program because there is a general belief in the region that this program is directed toward the destabilization of the region, directed to basically intimidate the countries in the region," Alani said. "They [believe] there is no justification for this program apart from the fact that Iran wants to be a major power in the region."

Iran says its nuclear program is purely peaceful. But the United States and Israel accuse Iran of secretly developing nuclear weapons.

Damascus Gives Full Support

On 20 January, Syria -- Iran's main ally in the region -- expressed support for Tehran's peaceful nuclear activities and said that western countries have failed to provide any convincing argument to deny Tehran nuclear technology.

Some analysts say many Arab countries believe that Tehran's nuclear program is not solely aimed at peaceful purposes. Among them is Abdel Salam in Cairo: "Egypt and most of the Arab countries know that or they have solid [indications] that there is a military dimension to the Iranian nuclear program."

Alani also says there is a general belief in the region that the actual objective of the Iranian nuclear program is to develop nuclear military capability.

He says last December's call at the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit for a nuclear-free Persian Gulf region reflects the degree of concern within the region over Iran's nuclear activities.

Nuclear-Free Mideast?

During the summit, GCC leaders reiterated a previous proposal that the Middle East -- including the Gulf region -- should be turned into an area free of weapons of mass destruction.

They also called on Israel to join the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and to open its facility to UN inspections. Experts widely believe Israel has nuclear weapons, though Israel has never confirmed it.

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal told the BBC on 16 January that the West is partly to blame for the current nuclear standoff because it allowed Israel to develop nuclear weapons.

Alani told RFE/RL that despite Arab countries' worry over Israel's alleged arsenal, their main concern is to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear bomb.

"There is concern about the Israeli nuclear program but in term of priority their first concern is the Iranian program, in the case of Israel it's a question of disarmament, so it will be very hard but the question of Iran is just to prevent the Iranians from developing their program, which is supposed to be much easier," he said.

Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, warned in a 22 January interview with the "Financial Times" that Tehran would resume efforts to enrich uranium on an industrial scale if the Iranian nuclear case is referred to the UN Security Council.

Copyright (c) 2006 RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.

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