In a report, the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies said Iran's nuclear program had prompted other states in the oil-rich region to consider acquiring nuclear technology.
"In the span of 11 months between February 2006 and January 2007, at least 13 countries in the Middle East announced new or revived plans to pursue or explore civilian nuclear energy," said the report, entitled "Nuclear Programmes in the Middle East In the Shadow of Iran".
"This upsurge of interest is remarkable given both the abundance of traditional energy sources in the region and the low standing to date of nuclear energy there."
Iran's plans to open a Russian-built nuclear power station at Bushehr would make it the first country in the region to develop nuclear power. Although Tehran says its program is solely for peaceful power generation, Western powers and Middle East states say they fear Iran is trying to make a nuclear bomb.
The IISS report also looked at Israel's nuclear program, concluding that the Jewish state possesses nuclear weapons despite its refusal to confirm this publicly, and would be unlikely to give them up to secure a nuclear-free Middle East.
Iran's plans should soon make it "the exception to the rule whereby the Middle East is the only region in the world without nuclear power", the report said. "If the recent aspirations of Iran's neighbors are ever realized, this exception would become the rule".It said the United Arab Emirates is likely to become the next country in the region after Iran with nuclear power.
Signatories to the global nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) are allowed to pursue nuclear power but must agree to controls to prevent them from building atomic weapons.
The report said nuclear power programs in the Middle East could make it easier for countries to develop weapons programs if the NPT breaks down. Treaty rules should be better enforced.
"Rules need to be rigorously enforced if the benefits of nuclear energy are to be enjoyed without proliferation risk; yet the international record on enforcement is poor.
"Violators of NPT-required safeguards agreements, export control regulations and U.N. Security Council mandates on non-proliferation have faced few real penalties. The problem is worst in the Middle East," it said.
Unlike other Middle Eastern countries, Israel has not signed the NPT. The report concluded that Israel has had atomic weapons for decades despite its official policy of "nuclear ambiguity".
"As Iran reaches one technological milestone after another in its journey towards acquiring a nuclear-weapons capability, Israel will face a sequence of dilemmas and be forced to make a series of fateful decisions as to whether and how it can live with this eventuality," it said.
Israel is unlikely to give up its own bomb as part of a deal to make the Middle East a nuclear-free zone if Iran succeeds in developing nuclear weapons, the IISS report added.
"Under the present circumstances, if prevention fails, Israelis would not look to arms control as a solution."(Source: Reuters)