Egypt, The Spoiler?

in Program

By Michael Krepon – The more Iran pursues nuclear capabilities, the more Cairo rails against Israel’s Bomb. In diplomacy, as in sports, this is known as a misdirection play: The nuclear threat posed to Egypt by Israel, with whom it signed a peace treaty in 1979, hasn’t changed. The big change in Egypt’s neighborhood has been attempts by Iraq, Iran and Syria to acquire capabilities to make nuclear weapons.

Cairo now holds the key to a successful or failed Non-Proliferation Treaty review conference, which convened in New York beginning on May 3rd. Egypt is in a position to play the spoiler’s role because it chairs both the 118-nation Non-Aligned Movement and the New Agenda Coalition a group of eight influential states, including Brazil and South Africa. Egypt has given notice that it seeks to mount a campaign at the month-long conference to pressure Israel, a non-party to the Treaty, to cap and reverse its nuclear program. The stakes are high, since a failed conference in New York would weaken global efforts to increase nuclear security, prevent proliferation, and facilitate nuclear disarmament.

Cairo has a legitimate beef. When the NPT was extended indefinitely in 1995, member states endorsed a resolution championed by Egypt calling for practical, progressive steps to establish an effectively verifiable zone free of weapons of mass destruction and their delivery systems in the Middle East. Israel has been a free-rider to the NPT, enjoying the constraints the Treaty imposes on others while remaining an outlier. Israel could take two crucial steps to strengthen the NPT by ratifying the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and declaring a moratorium on fissile material production for weapons purposes, but it has done neither.

Iran and Venezuela will make a ruckus at the review conference, but they cannot define its success or failure. If, on the other hand, Egypt becomes a ringleader, lining up Arab states to hold the NPT hostage to the behavior of a non-member state, the conference can end poorly. A weakened NPT would then provide more latitude for Iran’s nuclear ambitions and increase hedging strategies elsewhere in the Middle East. These outcomes would raise nuclear dangers in the Arab world and far beyond.

What game will Egypt play? Cairo has a serious security dilemma. It signed the NPT in 1968 and finally ratified the treaty in 1981. Later in the 1980s, it gave up on having a civil nuclear power program. Subsequently, Iraq, Iran and Syria have covertly tried to acquire the means to make nuclear weapons. After the discovery of an advanced nuclear program in Iraq, Cairo said little. It was part of what the Egyptian newspaper, Al-Ahram, called the “synchronized silence of the Arab world” following Israel’s bombing of the covert Syrian nuclear facility in September, 2007.

During Nasser’s rule, Egypt and Syria forged a short-lived federation. For Syria to seek the Bomb while Egypt’s nuclear options were closed must have been especially galling to Cairo. Next, Egypt abstained during the November, 2009 vote on Iranian noncompliance at the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Board of Governors. Meanwhile, other neighbors, including Algeria, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, and the United Arab Emirates began to move forward with plans for nuclear power plants. The more Cairo bites its tongue about troubling developments in the Muslim world, the more it amplifies its concerns about Israel’s nuclear program.

Egypt is now taking precautionary steps to deal with its security dilemma. Gamal Mubarak, the President’s son and heir apparent, gave a speech in September, 2006 calling for the construction of nuclear power plants. Egypt has experimented with fissile material in questionable ways. A February, 2005 report by the IAEA cited Egypt for failing to disclose nuclear facilities, material, and experiments related to producing plutonium and enriched uranium. The IAEA characterized these activities as “a matter of concern.” Cairo cooperated with the IAEA investigation, explaining that it and the Agency had “differing interpretations” of Egypt’s safeguards obligations, while affirming that Egypt’s “nuclear activities are strictly for peaceful purposes.” There have been published reports that Egypt is moving forward with new, longer-range ballistic missile programs. Egypt has refused to accept more stringent inspections of nuclear facilities as a “matter of principle,” explaining that it will only undertake greater responsibilities when Israel does so.

When asked on the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on April 12, whether Egypt might feel that it must develop its own nuclear weapons, Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit replied, “We will not announce ourselves on that possibility now.” Misdirection plays can work, or they can backfire. A bad outcome at the NPT review conference would increase nuclear dangers, but blaming Israel for this state of affairs would also widen Egypt’s nuclear options.


Photo Credit: UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe #435595

Michael Krepon is co-founder of the Stimson Center and the author of Better Safe than Sorry, The Ironies of Living with the Bomb (Stanford University Press, 2009).

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