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The nightmare of Dr. Mohammed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), was more powerful than ever this week - a hint that the day may not be far off when it will become a reality.

The ministerial members of the Gulf Cooperation Council met in the Saudi Arabian capital of Riyadh and decided to investigate the possibility of developing a nuclear program. The member states of the council are Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain and the Emirates. All these Persian Gulf countries are afraid of the incessant attempts on the part of Iran to attain nuclear weapons. True, they declared that their intention is to develop a peaceful nuclear program, but that is Iran's claim as well. India and Pakistan used the same excuse to justify their decisions to begin nuclear programs, which ended up being both civilian and military in nature.

In this way, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states will join Egypt, which announced three months ago that it was renewing nuclear development plans that had been frozen in the wake of the Chernobyl disaster. Turkey has likewise made it clear recently that it plans to build nuclear reactors for producing electricity. To these must be added Morocco, Algeria and Syria, which all have nuclear infrastructures and technology of one kind or another and the capability of expanding them.

The Middle East is moving faster toward nuclearization and it is precisely this danger that ElBaradei has been warning of in recent years. The IAEA head, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to curb nuclear proliferation, has for years urged that the Middle East be turned into "a nuclear weapon-free zone." This call has been intended first and foremost for Israel, which everyone already believes has nuclear arms, even without the slip of the tongue of the prime minister. Israel is not opposed to the idea in principle, but believes that a discussion of the need to dismantle nuclear (and chemical and biological) weapons must be held only after Israel's right to existence is recognized by all countries in the region, and after they have signed peace agreements and made security arrangements with Israel.

On the face of it, the moves toward nuclearization in the Middle East confirm the justice of ElBaradei's position, but if one is looking for the guilty parties, it appears that ElBaradei is more to blame than Israel in promoting nuclearization. His organization fell asleep while on guard duty. It woke up only in 2002 when Iran was violating its commitments to the IAEA and the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to which it is a signatory. But even after Iran's deceit was revealed, the IAEA continued to tarry. Instead of declaring Iran a "recalcitrant" country, ElBaradei preferred to draw up lukewarm reports and to try to hold a dialogue with it. In this way, he gave it extra time, during which it continued to improve its nuclear capability. Today the situation is very close to what the Israeli intelligence defines as the "technological threshold," beyond which it is a matter of two or three years until Iran can create an atom bomb.

More severe declarations on the part of ElBaradei may have meant that the issue would be brought before the UN Security Council three years ago and not only in February 2006. Maybe then it would have been easier to formulate broad international agreement on the need for effective sanctions.

Iran's efforts to develop nuclear weapons are anchored in its history and the major incentive for them was not Israel. It was the shah who prepared the infrastructure for the nuclear plan and it would probably have reached fruition had he remained in power. After a break during the years of the Khomeini regime, because of circumstances at the time (the war with Iraq and the theological opposition to nuclear arms), the plan was renewed and furthered under all the Islamic rulers of Iran, including Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammed Khatami, who were considered "moderate" by the West.

Iran's aspiration to nuclear armament is consistent and stems from the motivation of national pride and the desire to gain status among the regional powers. It is also the product of the trauma embedded in the Iranian consciousness by Saddam Hussein, who used chemical weapons against Iran. In addition, Iran is keen to gain deterrent power in the face of what it perceives as threats to it from the United States and Israel.

On the other hand, in the Arab countries and in particular in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, Iran's attempts to achieve nuclearization are seen as a Shi'ite threat to the Sunni Moslems. This was pointed out already three years ago by Ephraim Asculai, a former member of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission, in an article published by the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.

Asculai is of the opinion that the Sunni fear of a Shi'ite bomb motivated Saudi Arabia to arrive at a secret agreement with Pakistan. The details of this agreement are not clear, but according to various assessments, it is based on a deal that Saudi Arabia would contribute toward the Pakistani nuclear project and in return receive a Pakistani commitment to provide it with a "nuclear umbrella." Saudi Arabia already has the wherewithal to launch the weapons. About 20 years ago, it bought missiles from China with a 3,000-kilometer range.

Thus, while Arab states continue in public to describe a nuclearized Israel as the source of the threat to regional stability, in effect their decisions to become nuclearized are the result of what they perceive as a threat from the direction of Iran.