VIENNA — As Iran races ahead with an illicit uranium enrichment effort, nearly a dozen other Middle East nations are moving forward on their own civilian nuclear programs. In the latest development, a team of eight U.N. experts on Friday ended a weeklong trip to Saudi Arabia to provide nuclear guidance to officials from six Persian Gulf countries.
Diplomats and analysts view the Saudi trip as the latest sign that Iran's suspected weapons program has helped spark a chain reaction of nuclear interest among its Arab rivals, which some fear will lead to a scramble for atomic weapons in the world's most volatile region.
The International Atomic Energy Agency sent the team of nuclear experts to Riyadh, the Saudi capital, to advise the Gulf Cooperation Council on building nuclear energy plants. Together, the council members -- Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the seven sheikdoms of the United Arab Emirates -- control nearly half the world's known oil reserves.
Other nations that have said they plan to construct civilian nuclear reactors or have sought technical assistance and advice from the IAEA, the Vienna-based United Nations nuclear watchdog agency, in the last year include Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Turkey and Yemen, as well as several North African nations.
None of the governments has disclosed plans to build nuclear weapons. But Iran's 18-year secret nuclear effort and its refusal to comply with current U.N. Security Council demands have raised concerns that the Arab world will decide it needs to counter a potentially nuclear-armed Iran. The same equipment can enrich uranium to fuel civilian reactors or, in time and with further enrichment, atomic bombs.
"There is no doubt that countries around the gulf are worried ... about whether Iran is seeking nuclear weapons," Gregory L. Schulte, the U.S. representative to U.N. agencies in Vienna, said in an interview. "They're worried about whether it will prompt a nuclear arms race in the region, which would be to no one's benefit."
The United States has long supported the spread of peaceful nuclear energy under strict international safeguards. Schulte said Washington's diplomatic focus remained on stopping Iran before it could produce fuel for nuclear weapons, rather than on trying to restrict nations from developing nuclear power for generating electricity.
But those empowered to monitor and regulate civilian nuclear programs around the world are worried. Mohamed ElBaradei, director-general of the IAEA, warned Thursday that the surge of interest in sensitive nuclear technology raised the risk of weapons proliferation. Without singling out any nation, he cautioned that some governments might insist on enriching their own uranium to ensure a steady supply of reactor fuel.
"The concern is that by mastering the fuel cycle, countries move dangerously close to nuclear weapons capability," ElBaradei told a disarmament conference in Luxembourg.
Iran is the obvious case in point. Tehran this week defied another U.N. Security Council deadline by which it was to freeze its nuclear program. The IAEA reported that Iran instead was accelerating uranium enrichment without having yet built the reactors that would need the nuclear fuel. At the same time, the IAEA complained, Iran's diminishing cooperation had made it impossible to confirm Tehran's claims that the program is only for peaceful purposes.
That has unnerved Iran's neighbors as well as members of the Security Council.
"We have the right if the Iranians are going to insist on their right to develop their civilian nuclear program," said Mustafa Alani, a security expert at the Gulf Research Center, a think tank based in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. "We tell the Iranians, 'We have no problem with you developing civilian nuclear energy, but if you're going to turn your nuclear program into a weapons program, we'll do the same.' "
Iran sought to rally Arab support for its nuclear program at the World Economic Forum meeting of business and political leaders this month in Jordan.
"Iran will be a partner, a brotherly partner, and will share its capabilities with the people of the region," Mohammed J.A. Larijani, a former deputy foreign minister, told reporters.
Arab officials were cool to his approach, however, and openly questioned Iran's intentions.
The IAEA team's weeklong foray to Saudi Arabia followed ElBaradei's visit to the kingdom in April. The Gulf Cooperation Council plans to present the results of its study on developing nuclear plants to the leaders of council nations in the Omani capital of Muscat in December.
"They don't say it, but everyone can see that [Iran] is at least one of the reasons behind the drive to obtaining the nuclear technology," said Salem Ahmad Sahab, a professor of political science at King Abdulaziz University in Jidda, Saudi Arabia. "If the neighbors are capable of obtaining the technology, why not them?"