Egypt's president announced plans Monday to build several nuclear power plants — the latest in a string of such proposals from moderate Arab countries.

The United States immediately welcomed the plan, in sharp contrast to what it called nuclear "cheating" by Iran.

President Hosni Mubarak said the aim is to diversify Egypt's energy resources and preserve its oil and gas reserves for future generations. In a televised speech, he pledged Egypt would work with the United Nations' nuclear watchdog agency at all times and would not seek a nuclear bomb.

But Mubarak also made clear there were strategic reasons for the program, calling secure sources of energy "an integral part of Egypt's national security system."

In Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the U.S. would not object to the program as long as Egypt adhered to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)guidelines.

"The problem has arisen, specifically in the case of Iran, where you have a country that has made certain commitments, and in our view and the shared view of many… (is) cheating on those obligations," he said.

"For those states who want to pursue peaceful nuclear energy… that's not a problem for us," McCormack said. "Those are countries that we can work with."

The U.S. accuses Iran of using the cover of a peaceful nuclear program to secretly work toward building a bomb, an allegation Iran denies. Iran asserts it has a right to peaceful nuclear power and needs it to meet its economy's voracious energy needs.

Iran's program has prompted a slew of Mideast countries to announce plans of their own— in part simply to blunt Tehran's rising regional influence.

Jordan, Turkey and several Gulf Arab countries have announced in recent months that they are interested in developing nuclear power programs, and Yemen's government signed a deal with a U.S. company in September to build civilian nuclear plants over the next 10 years.

Algeria also signed a cooperation accord with the U.S. on civil nuclear energy in June, and Morocco announced a deal last week under which France will help develop nuclear reactors there.

Program shelved after Chernobyl

Egypt first announced a year ago that it was seeking to restart a nuclear program that was publicly shelved in the aftermath of the 1986 accident at the Soviet nuclear plant in Chernobyl.

Mubarak offered no timetable Monday, but a year ago, Hassan Yunis, the minister of electricity and energy, said Egypt could have an operational nuclear power plant within 10 years.

Egypt has conducted nuclear experiments for research purposes on a very small scale for the past four decades, at a reactor northeast of Cairo, buthas not included the key process of uranium enrichment, according to the IAEA.

Experts predict the first of the nuclear facilities could be built in as little as three years.