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As Obama dithers, Egypt ramps up its nuclear options

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After the fatally-flawed interim deal signed by the P5+1 in Geneva November 24 over Iran's nuclear program, America's slighted ally Egypt is now possibly pursuing its own nuclear option, amid fears of an atomic arms race between Tehran and its regional Sunni rivals in Cairo, Riyadh and beyond.

And no one seems to be paying attention.

Egypt’s traditionally close relations with the U.S. have been severely strained since Minister of Defense General Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi ousted the narrowly-elected President Mohamed Morsi after more than thirty million marched against him and the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), to which he belongs.

To the outrage of most Egyptians, the U.S. cut roughly a third in cash and equipment of its annual $1.6 billion of mainly military aid to Cairo in early October in punishment for the new regime’s crackdown on the MB, which demands the return of Morsi -- and which Egypt now correctly classifies as a terrorist organization.

Egypt’s 60-year-old nuclear program is already the third largest in the region, after those of Israel and Iran.

Yet the White House had boosted aid to Egypt even as Morsi grew more and more repressive, imposing his Islamist agenda on the country.

On October 6, Egypt's interim president, Adly Mansour, announced at the annual commemoration of Egypt's successful 1973 surprise attack on the Israelis across the Suez Canal that construction of a 1,000 MW light-water reactor to generate electricity at El-Debaa, 120 kilometers west of Alexandria -- the first of four planned in the country -- would go ahead.

Egypt’s 60-year-old nuclear program is already the third largest in the region, after those of Israel and Iran.
On November 26, the respected Middle East news site Al-Monitor reported that Egypt expects to generate $4 billion in grants from interested international companies to finance the project.

Morsi, whom al-Sisi appointed Mansour to replace pending new elections next year, had earlier approved a similar plan, even obtaining a pledge of Russian "research assistance" for Egypt’s nuclear expansion, as well as help in exploiting the nation’s previously unknown major deposits of uranium.

In mid-November, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Defense Minister Sergei Shoygu visited Egypt, where they negotiated a deal through which Egypt will buy $2 billion worth of Russian military equipment.

“We want to give a new impetus to our relations and return them to the same high level that used to exist with the Soviet Union”—i.e., during the Cold War--Egypt’s Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmi is quoted as saying.

On November 11, the destroyer Varyag docked with an official welcome at Alexandria, the first Russian warship to visit one of Egypt’s ports in decades.

It is not known if the Russians and their hosts also discussed Egypt’s nuclear program in those talks.

Morsi -- whom the Iranians too had offered to help develop his nuclear program, and with whom he worked to have closer ties after three decades of frozen relations--was most likely interested in acquiring nuclear weapons, for which the MB has called since 2006.

That idea is still wildly popular in Egypt, even if the MB no longer is.

Yet unlike Iran, a major oil exporter, Egypt really does have an urgent, legitimate need to develop new sources of energy.

Rolling brownouts and blackouts have been increasingly common, especially in post-Mubarak Egypt.

But as al-Sisi and Obama drift further apart, there are good reasons to be aware, if not wary, of Egypt's push for nuclear power.

Egypt’s nuclear program, which began in 1954, features two research reactors and a hot-cell laboratory, all located at Inshas in the Delta.

From the reactors’ spent fuel rods, the hot-cell laboratory reportedly extracts at least six kilograms of plutonium -- enough for one nuclear bomb -- per year.

During the rule of Hosni Mubarak -- overthrown in February 2011 in a U.S.-backed coup propelled by public protests--the International Agency for Atomic Energy (IAEA) in 2004 opened an investigation into irradiation experiments and the unreported import of nuclear materials, and in 2007 and 2008 found traces of Highly-Enriched Uranium (HEU), all at Inshas.

After each, the IAEA issued brief, bland reports, but the last case is apparently still open, while similar traces of HEU found in facilities in Iran provided the first clue that Pakistan had been aiding Tehran’s own drive for the bomb.

Mubarak also called for a Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone (WMDFZ) in the Middle East--now a movement, co-led by Iran, obviously aimed at freeing Israel of its most effective last-ditch defenses.

Yet, although Egypt signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1968, it has refused to sign the NPT’s Additional Protocol, which permits spot inspections, as well as treaties banning the possession of chemical and biological weapons.

Al-Sisi shares Mubarak’s antipathy for the ayatollahs, and rightly fears their growing rapprochement with a gullible U.S. eager to create a new alignment in the Middle East, at the expense of traditional Sunni allies.

That means not only Egypt but Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), who ultimately felt threatened by the MB in Egypt (the UAE is now prosecuting about thirty MB members accused of plotting subversion), which the Obama administration continues to stand by instead, despite the group’s anti-Western ideology and actions.

There is now enormous support on the street for Egypt to shift its alliance away from the U.S., particularly toward Russia, especially after President Vladimir Putin’s masterful diplomatic deflection of America’s pusillanimous threat of a military strike against Moscow’s Syrian client last fall.

The rift is not yet complete- -- though there still is no clear sign that the Obama administration will either fully accept the loss of Morsi, or actually stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and the means of delivering them.

Whatever Iran chooses to do when it finally gets the bomb, its very proximity to having these ultimate weapons could impel its neighbors to seek their own deterrent.

Sadly, no deterrent nor strategy of containment can control the dynamics of this most unstable region should Iran achieve its ultimate nuclear ambitions.

And a nuclear arms race between the Sunni states and Iran -- also, in the end, aimed at Israel -- would be even worse.

Raymond Stock, a Shillman-Ginsburg Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum and a former Assistant Professor of Arabic and Middle East Studies at Drew University, spent twenty years in Egypt, and was deported by the Mubarak regime in 2010. He is writing a biography of 1988 Egyptian Nobel laureate in literature Naguib Mahfouz (1911-2006) for Farrar, Straus & Giroux, and is a prolific translator of his works, most recently "Before the Throne" (Anchor Books/Random House, July 2012).