March 5, 2007 / 6:39 PM / 13 years ago

Saudi defends Gulf Arab atom plans, criticizes Iran

RIYADH (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia said on Monday Iran’s nuclear program was an extra burden for the Middle East, but Gulf Arab allies had the right to their own atomic ambitions.

Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal attends the annual Arab League meeting in Cairo, March 4, 2007. REUTERS/Nasser Nuri

The Gulf Arab states’ plan to start their own nuclear program has raised fears of an atomic race with non-Arab Shi’ite Iran. The Gulf Arabs share Western concerns that Tehran secretly wants to develop a nuclear bomb, a charge Iran denies.

Arab foreign ministers of the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) met in Saudi Arabia to discuss progress in plans agreed in December for a joint civilian atomic program.

“The nuclear crisis in the region has become an extra burden to challenges that are already facing us,” Saudi Foreign Affairs Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal told the ministers.

“This urges us to deal with the new challenge with full responsibility ... and adopt diplomatic solutions in a way that would preserve the right of countries in the region for their own nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.”

Prince Saud also criticized Israel, which is widely believed to have the Middle East’s only nuclear arsenal.

“The International Atomic Energy Agency standards and measures should apply to all countries in the region without exceptions, including Israel.”

The GCC is a loose political and economic alliance of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman.

Earlier, GCC Secretary-General Abdul-Rahman al-Attiyah, who visited the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) last month, said he would brief the meeting about plans to cooperate with the U.N. nuclear watchdog.

In a statement issued after the end of the GCC meeting, the six Arab states called on all regional countries to rid the Middle East of weapons of mass destruction.

They also urged the IAEA to press Israel to sign the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and to “subject its nuclear plants to inspection”.

Six world powers are now negotiating widening sanctions against Iran for pressing ahead with its program to enrich uranium and ignoring a February 21 U.N. deadline to stop.

Additional reporting by Stanley Carvalho in Abu Dhabi

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