One of the greatest risks associated with Iran’s determined drive to acquire a nuclear weapons capability is that it will spark further nuclear proliferation in the region. According to recent reports, six new states in the Middle East are already considering developing nuclear programs. The oil-rich Arab Gulf states consider starting a joint nuclear program for peaceful purposes. Issued after a two-day meeting of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council, the statement said the group “commissioned a study” on setting up “a common program in the area of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes,” which would abide by international standards and laws.
Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, was quick to tell reporters after the closing session that the group did not want to be “misunderstood,” saying its aim “is to obtain the technology for peaceful purposes, no more no less.” However, the Arab nations in the region, have expressed worry over the disputed Iranian nuclear program, which is the focus of a standoff with the West over Tehran’s refusal to suspend uranium enrichment. In fact, Iran’s first reactor — being built in Bushehr just across the gulf from Kuwait and the eastern coast of Saudi Arabia — is projected to begin operating in late 2007. Arab analysts have urged their leaders sending a “clear, strong and courageous” message to Iran that the GCC nations will not sit and watch while Iran presses forward with its nuclear program.
For example, Egypt – one of the more serious potential proliferators – is undoubtedly most troubled by the prospect of Iran becoming a nuclear state and has begun to voice its concerns more openly than in the past.
In March 2004, US and British intelligence officials reported on evidence found that Libya traded nuclear and missile expertise with Egypt. It appeared that Egypt could been using Libya as a way-station for obtaining nuclear and missile technology and components from North Korea. Earlier, in 2002, Egypt denied US allegations that Cairo was conducting secret missile and WMD trade with Libya. The allegations were based on CIA satellite photographs. In January 2005, the head of Mossad, Meir Dagan, warned the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, that there were indications on several Middle East states other than Iran – including Egypt and Syria – working at varying stages in development of indigenous nuclear programs.
Days after, former Mossad chief Ephraim Halevy expressed fears that Syria, Egypt and Saudi Arabia might have acquired some kind of nuclear capability via an illicit weapons trafficking network run by Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan, the chief architect of Pakistan’s nuclear bomb. Israeli military sources recently told The Jerusalem Post that, thanks to Khan, one of those three Arab states now has the potential to achieve a “significant nuclear leap.”
United States officials have expressed concern about reports that Egypt has a secret uranium research program supporting further investigation by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Indeed, the UN nuclear agency also claimed in its recent report, that Egypt might have conducted secret nuclear experiments in violation of international non-proliferation treaties.
When experts from the United States and the International Atomic Energy Agency ( IAEA) came upon blueprints for a 10-kiloton atomic bomb in the files of the Libyan weapons program, they discovered some disturbing documents, pertaining to so far suspected, but not proven intelligence rumors. These documents also confirmed U.S. suspicions of secret trade between Cairo and Tripoli in strategic weapons obtained from North Korea.
On the evidence found the experts gained new appreciation on the audacity of the rogue nuclear network led by the notorious Pakistani nuclear scientist Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan. Intelligence officials had watched Dr. Khan for years and suspected that he was trafficking in machinery for enriching uranium to make fuel for warheads.
Among documents seized in Libya, Investigators learned, that Dr Khan had traveled extensively throughout the Middle East and among others, secretly visited Syria, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, on what they believed were business trips, either to buy materials like uranium ore or even sell atomic goods.
American intelligence officials had Dr. Khan under surveillance for nearly three decades, since he began assembling components for Pakistan’s bomb, but apparently had missed some of his crucial transactions and secret negotiations in the Middle East.
Egypt’s own nuclear program is a delicate balance of championing nuclear nonproliferation in the Middle East, developing civilian nuclear industry to address its economic and electricity needs, while at the same time seeking some guarantee of security against the Israeli nuclear threat.
At the core of Egypt’s nuclear program is the Inshas Nuclear Research Center in Cairo. Inshas hosts a 2-megawatt, Soviet-supplied research reactor that started in 1961 and runs on ten-percent-enriched uranium fuel. The reactor was shut down for renovation during the 1980s, but started up again in 1990. In 1992, Egypt had signed a contract with Invap, Argentina’s leading nuclear organization, to build a 22-megawatt research reactor at Inshas. According to statements by an official at Argentina’s embassy in Washington, DC, construction began in March 1993.
Egypt’s Nuclear Materials Authority has directed uranium exploration to concentrate on four areas in the eastern desert: Gabal Gattar, El Missikat, El Erediya and Um Ara. A new uranium-bearing area, Gabal Kadabora, has been discovered in the central eastern desert and is now under evaluation
Egypt has not in the past and does not presently appear to be aggressively pursuing nuclear weapons, however a recent increase in calls by military officers, government officials, and scholars to develop an Arab deterrent to Israel signals a growing frustration with what it perceives to be the international community’s double standard regarding nuclear proliferation in the region. Unfortunately, this trend may receive new impetus following PM Olmert’s unexplained gaffe this week.
Statements already made by high-level Egyptian officials and various media reports have overwhelmingly target Israel as Egypt’s major concern in the nuclear realm. However, embedded in these latest statements, are clear hints of Egypt’s broader regional considerations, which make its agenda on nuclear issues much more varied and complex. Egypt is particularly concerned how nuclear development and potential proliferators and especially a shiite dominated nuclear Iran could have impact on Egypt’s own regional prominence.
Looking at what has happened more recently with India and Pakistan since they became declared nuclear states, Egypt could conclude that implications of going nuclear in the future might not be that serious, especially in light of American-Pakistani cooperation since September 11. In this context, Egypt will most likely be very interested in U.S. policy toward North Korea and its so far incapable dealing with Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Thus it is not surprising that President Hosni Mubarak called recently for Egypt to pursue a peaceful nuclear energy program. Mubarak echoed a call made earlier by his 42 year old son, Gamal, who many in Egypt believe is being groomed to succeed his father at the helm. The proposal raised eyebrows, which analysts saw as a jab at the United States, which, while still locked in a confrontation with Iran over its nuclear program, may lately be wavering in its firm stance. Middle East experts and analysts point to the timing of these announcements – coinciding with western concerns that Iran’s nuclear program may prompt an arms race in the Middle East – as a sign of their potentially broader regional significance.