updated 12/25/2006 7:41:59 PM ET 2006-12-26T00:41:59

Egypt rebuked Iran’s president on Monday for claiming his state is “a nuclear country” — a comment that touched a nerve among Iran’s neighbors in the Middle East.

Iran has consistently denied it seeks to build nuclear weapons, saying it aims to use its nuclear technology only to produce electrical power. But President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s ambiguous statement stirred fears about its nuclear ambitions.

Ahmadinejad’s comments came in reaction to a U.N. Security Council resolution adopted Saturday which imposed limited sanctions on Iran for its refusal to cease uranium enrichment. Enriched uranium, which Iran insists on producing, can be used as fuel for nuclear reactors or as material for atomic weapons.

“Iran is a nuclear country” whether the world likes it or not, he told a gathering Sunday in Tehran.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit responded Monday by saying only states that possess atomic bombs should claim to be nuclear powers.

“Nuclear states are only those that have military nuclear capabilities,” he said in a statement. “The possession by some countries of peaceful nuclear technology or some of stages of the nuclear cycle or carrying out some peaceful nuclear activities does not mean by any means that it can call itself a nuclear state.”

Egypt wants Mideast a nuclear-free zone
The United States and some allies have accused Iran of using a civilian nuclear program as a cover for acquiring nuclear weapons

Iran’s decision to declare itself a nuclear power could undermine Egypt’s campaign to get the Middle East to declare itself a zone free of nuclear weapons.

Iran’s nuclear ambitions are of particular concern to Israel, the only Middle Eastern state believed to now have a nuclear arsenal. Ahmadinejad has called for Israel to be wiped off the map.

Israel has been ambiguous about its program, refusing to either confirm or deny it has nuclear weapons. It has said it will not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons to the Middle East.

Many Sunni Arab states, including Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia are worried about the growing influence of Shiite Iran in Iraq, and its potential for stirring up religious tensions between the region’s Shiite and Sunni populations. Both Iran and Iraq have Shiite Muslim majorities.

Under Saddam Hussein, Iraq was run by its Sunni Arab minority. Now, the Shiites lead the government and some Sunnis fear their political success may embolden Shiite communities across the Arab world.

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