A nuclear weapon button
Israel – long suspected to possess nuclear weapons – has warned that several other Middle Eastern countries are trying to acquire them iStock

A top Israeli government minister has warned that several Gulf Arab states in the Middle East are attempting to acquire nuclear missiles. Though defence minister Moshe Ya'alon did not name the states, they are thought to include Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Speaking after meetings with Jordan – one of only two Arab countries with whom Israel has formal diplomatic ties – Ya'alon said that Sunni states are responding to last year's nuclear deal with Iran. Tehran has always insisted it has no ambitions to construct nuclear weapons.

"We see signs that countries in the Arab world are preparing to acquire nuclear weapons, that they are not willing to sit quietly with Iran on brink of a nuclear or atomic bomb," said Ya'alon. Warning that Iran may feel emboldened to commence a missile program as sanctions are eased, he continued: "If at a certain stage they feel confident, particularly economically, they are liable to make a break for the bomb."

Currently in the region, only Israel is thought to possess nuclear weapons, though it has never confirmed it, but Ya'alon did not state which other countries might try to acquire them. Saudi Arabia – currently conducting huge military exercises – is seen by many as the most likely candidate, having both the financial clout and links with Pakistan's nuclear scientists to make it happen. The UAE is known to be building nuclear power programs but there is no public evidence it is also building weapons.

As the conflict in Syria continues, any suggestion that nuclear weapons could be attainable by Middle Eastern states would spread alarm across the world. Even more worrying would be the possibility that a militant group such as the Islamic State (Isis) could seize them for themselves.