Page last updated at 14:24 GMT, Friday, 25 April 2008 15:24 UK

Nuclear powers in the Middle East

CIA issue picture allegedly showing the Syrian nuclear reactor being built
CIA issue picture allegedly showing the Syrian nuclear reactor being built

The BBC News website looks at the Middle Eastern countries that have, or are believed to have, nuclear programmes - civilian or military. In April 2008, the US alleged that Syria was building a secret nuclear reactor for "non-peaceful purposes".


Israel has never officially admitted having nuclear weapons, but is widely recognised to possess a significant arsenal. There are estimates it has between 75 and 200 nuclear warheads.

The state is able to maintain its policy of ambiguity as it has not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. It is therefore not subject to inspections and the threat of sanctions by the United Nations nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency.

This is a source of grievance for Iran and Arab countries which are signatories. Their attempts to get an IAEA resolution on Israel have been blocked by the United States and its allies.

Israel's nuclear reactor at Dimona in the Negev desert was built secretly with help from France and was completed in 1964. It provides power and is understood to be the source of plutonium for Israeli nuclear weapons.


Two years ago, President Ahmadinejad announced that Iran had joined the world's nuclear countries, successfully enriching uranium to an industrial level.

It has since defied international pressure to suspend its activities. In March, the UN Security Council approved a third round of sanctions against Iran.

While Tehran insists its ambitions are peaceful, many suspect that it wants to develop nuclear weapons. Experts argue it does not make economic sense for it to build its own enrichment and reprocessing facilities.

However it may make political sense. Iranians feel pride in the national nuclear programme and it has strengthened their country's regional profile.

The extent of Iran's nuclear development remains unclear. In December, a US intelligence assessment claimed it had a nuclear weapons programme until 2003 but that it had been stopped and probably not restarted.


The White House claims that North Korea helped Syria build a secret nuclear reactor which was destroyed in an Israeli air raid last year. It said it had good reason to believe the development was not for peaceful purposes.

Damascus has dismissed the allegations as "ridiculous". Syria is a close ally of Iran and the two countries have a mutual defence pact. It is unusual among Arab countries in declaring its full support for Iran's nuclear programme.


Egypt recently announced plans to build a number of nuclear power stations to generate electricity. It says energy security is important to its development.

The US has offered to provide assistance, saying there is no comparison between the peaceful use of nuclear technology by Egypt and Iran's controversial nuclear programme.

Cairo's original plans to pursue nuclear weapons were abandoned in the 1980s when the country ratified the NPT. It has since led calls for a Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction.


Saudi Arabia has the world's largest oil reserves and an abundance of natural gas but is now also developing a civilian nuclear power supply.

There is speculation this is in response to Iran developing a nuclear capacity. The kingdom is wary of its Gulf neighbour's intentions, but does not support a US strike on its nuclear sites.

Saudi Arabia and the other states of the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) - Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates - have declared an interest in pursuing a joint civilian nuclear programme. In January, France signed a deal to help the United Arab Emirates build a nuclear reactor.


Last year, King Abdullah of Jordan told Israel's Haaretz newspaper that the rules had changed on the nuclear issue in the Middle East. He went on to announce that his country planned to develop its first nuclear power plant by 2015 for electricity and desalination. He said it was following Egypt and the GCC.

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