AMMAN, Jordan -- King Abdullah II said yesterday that Jordan wants to develop a peaceful nuclear program, joining Egypt and Arab Gulf countries in considering a nuclear option.
Arab nations are fearful over the West's failure to stop Shi'ite Iran's nuclear ambitions, which they worry will lead to Tehran having an atomic weapon.
The Arab countries have complained for years about Israel's nuclear program and reported arsenal, but it never prompted them to seek programs of their own. Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia -- nations where Sunni Muslims predominate -- have expressed concern over Iranian influence in Iraq and Lebanon .
But Iran's progress in building nuclear facilities has sparked a rush among Arab nations to look at nuclear programs, raising the possibility of a proliferation of nuclear technology -- or even weapons -- in the volatile Middle East.
Any significant Arab nuclear program is probably years away, and some observers are skeptical that cash-strapped countries like Egypt and Jordan have the resources for such facilities. But simply announcing the intention could be meant as a signal to Iran that its ties to Arab nations will suffer over its nuclear endeavors -- and to the United States that its Arab allies are concerned.
"Jordan is trying to toss another log on the fire and . . . obliquely point out to the Iranians that the acquisition of such a weapon would create such pressure on the Arab neighbors [to respond] that acquiring the bomb would not be useful" for Iran, said Justin Logan, a foreign policy analyst at the Washington-based Cato Institute.
Abdullah announced his interest in a nuclear program in an interview with the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. He said his kingdom wanted nuclear power "for peaceful purposes" and has been "discussing it with the West."
"The rules governing the nuclear issue have changed in the entire region," he told Haaretz. Although Jordan would rather see a nuclear-free Middle East, he said, "every desire we had on this issue has changed."
Abdullah said all nuclear programs in the region should be subject to international inspection. "We want to make sure this is used for energy. What we don't want is an arms race to come out of this," he said.
Washington has shown no objection to nuclear moves among its Mideast allies.
Deputy spokesman Tom Casey, without mentioning Jordan by name, said yesterday that every country that adheres strictly to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty "has the right to develop civilian nuclear power for the benefit of their people."
The United States offered to help Egypt with nuclear technology after President Hosni Mubarak announced in September that his country would revive plans for a nuclear program, shelved in the aftermath of the 1986 explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear plant.
Two months later, the leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council -- Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, and Oman -- said they would consider starting a joint nuclear program for peaceful purposes.
The sudden interest in nuclear programs is "clearly tied up in the political battle between Iran and the West," said Jon Wolfsthal, who follows Iran for the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Repeated efforts by the United States and its allies to halt Iran's program, including UN Security Council sanctions imposed last month, have failed to dissuade hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran.
Washington and Israel believe Iran is secretly developing nuclear weapons. Iran says its program is peaceful and intended to produce electricity.
"The Iranians left us no option, so this is our answer to them. Now Arabs have no option but to start a program under a civilian banner," said Mustafa Alani, an analyst at the Gulf Research Center in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
He said that while Arab countries may not have the resources for the expensive programs, collectively they would. And he warned that heightened tensions in the region could "trigger a race for arms."