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The scramble for power

Wednesday - 4/20/2011, 1:31pm  ET

J.J. Green, wtop.com

WASHINGTON -- The uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East have toppled governments and almost crippled the intelligence services in those countries. As a result, al-Qaida is on the move.

"I think it's a very, very ripe time to take hold in many, many countries," says Fred Burton, author the new book "Chasing Shadows." According to Burton, Libya, Algeria, Yemen, Bahrain and other countries rocked by uprisings are facing resource issues.

"There's only so much bandwidth with a intelligence service with any of the nations you've mentioned."

Burton and other intelligence experts say the Middle Eastern and North African intelligence services' hands are full trying to gather information about protests spreading across their countries and the people behind them. They're also trying to protect their heads of state. It leaves a door open for al-Qaida.

"That affords a very concerning window for al-Qaida to take advantage of in moving operatives in and out of these countries," says Burton, who spent 30 years chasing terrorists for the U.S. government.

He says it's only a matter of time. "You have a structure that's already wound very tight, like a rubber band and the question becomes one of, 'When does that rubber band break?'"

In fact, the Western intelligence agencies and multi-national corporations that Burton's firm Stratfor deals with are scrambling as well to prepare for the day the rubber band breaks.

"Just the sheer number of requests for analysis from companies wanting to make sense out of what's happening in the Middle East is evidence. At times there's not a lot of visibility into what's occurring," says Burton.

Beyond the concerns about regional instability looms the complicated saga of Iran's nuclear program.

Iran, according to U.S government officials, is still pressing full speed ahead with its nuclear weapons program. But the goal may be different than what was originally thought.

"I think Iran is arming itself not necessarily to confront Israel. I think Iran wants to be the dominant power in the Arabian Gulf," says Maen Areikat, PLO representative to the U.S.

The U.S. Treasury Department says North Korean companies are helping Iran acquire components that can be used in its nuclear weapons program.

Areikat says Iran wants to once again be a power broker: "They are trying to revive the role the Shah played before the revolution in 1978."

Since 1978, three countries have developed nuclear capabilities, including Israel --although the Israeli government has never acknowledged it. Areikat adds, "I am someone who doesn't necessary buy that argument that Iran is arming itself to attack Israel."

He says threatening Israel is Iran's sales pitch.

"They use it. The Iranians use it to get support and sympathy from the Arabs, Muslims and Palestinians".

"Iran wants to be recognized by the United States that they are the dominant power in the Arabian Gulf and they want to be treated as such."

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(Copyright 2011 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)