AMMAN, Jordan - The chief U.N. nuclear watchdog on Sunday wrapped up a tour of the Middle East to offer support to nations interested in developing peaceful atomic energy programs despite the international faceoff with Iran over suspicions it is pursuing nuclear weapons.
Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Turkey and the smaller Arab states around the Persian Gulf all have said they will study the feasibility of building civilian programs for generating electricity with nuclear reactors.
During a meeting Sunday, Jordan's King Abdullah II told Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, that his kingdom needs to diversify its sources of energy, especially with oil prices rising.
The king promised that Jordan, which imports nearly all of its oil, would be a model in the peaceful development of nuclear energy if it decided to go ahead.
The Petra news agency quoted ElBaradei as saying his "agency was ready to help Jordan to benefit from nuclear energy for peaceful purposes." He said the IAEA would dispatch a team to Jordan next week to look into its plans.
Earlier in his trip, ElBaradei offered similar support to the oil-rich Gulf Cooperation Council - Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman - which said in November that they would consider starting a joint nuclear program for peaceful purposes.
ElBaradei said Thursday in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, that he recognized "the necessity of the Gulf Cooperation Council to own this (nuclear) energy at the current time despite owning other energy sources like oil and gas."
While none of the Mideast nations expressing an interest in nuclear power has publicly cited Iran's alleged ambition to acquire atomic weapons - a charge Tehran denies - some analysts think the announcements are intended as a warning to the Iranians about the dangers of a regional arms race. Energy experts say any significant Arab nuclear program would probably take years, and some are skeptical that cash-strapped countries like Egypt and Jordan have the resources for such facilities. The U.S. government opposes the spread of nuclear weapons in the region, but officials in Washington have said any country that strictly follows the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty is free to develop a civilian power program. The U.S. offered to help Egypt with nuclear technology after it announced plans in September to revive a mothballed nuclear program. Jordan's king announced his plan to study a nuclear program in January in an interview with the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. It was assumed he chose an Israeli newspaper to make clear the program was not directed at the Jewish state. Israel is widely believed to have nuclear weapons of its own, but has never officially confirmed that it does. "The rules have changed," Abdullah told Haaretz. "Everybody's going for nuclear programs." Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev declined to comment Sunday about the interest expressed by Jordan, Egypt and others in acquiring nuclear programs. But, he added, "Israel is concerned that Iranian nuclear program is not only a direct threat to regional security, but will also lead to a larger nuclear proliferation in the region, which would be to no one's benefit." Key Arab countries such as Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt also are concerned by Iran's nuclear ambitions, although Tehran insists its program is peaceful. At an Arab summit in Saudi Arabia last month, leaders warned that Iran's push for nuclear technology could be the start of "a grave and destructive nuclear arms race in the region." As ElBaradei spoke with Abdullah, Iran announced it had put out bids to build two nuclear power plants to generate electricity. ElBaradei, an Egyptian, sought to temper fears over the nature of the nuclear program in Iran, which has been hit with U.S. Security Council sanctions seeking to force Tehran to suspend uranium enrichment and provide proof its program isn't aimed at building atomic bombs. "We still have plenty of time to solve the problem peacefully," ElBaradei said, alluding to forecasts that the Iranians would need five to 10 more years of work before being capable of constructing nuclear weapons. (AP) Associated Press writer Dale Gavlak contributed to this report. AP-CS-04-15-07 1939EDT