There is one nuclear weapons state in the Middle East: Israel, which has between 100 and 200 nuclear weapons and the delivery vehicles to use them. Iran seems to be building up to an implicit or explicit nuclear weapon capability to deter Israel and the United States, and to secure itself as a regional power. A number of other countries in the region, including Egypt, have looked at nuclear weapons in the past. Some of them may be looking at nuclear weapons now, in light of Iran’s apparent ambitions.
We need to consider the historical context of some of the apparent nuclear ambitions, while keeping in mind that work done in the past provides some basis for increasing future capability. Motivations change over time. For one notable example, Iraq under Saddam Hussein, in the late eighties, was pursuing nuclear weapons; its changed government, with other difficulties, has no interest in nuclear weapons just now.
Will the new government in Egypt want nuclear weapons? Highly unlikely, if only because getting Egypt’s economy into operating shape is likely to take several years to a decade, even without the enormous drain of a nuclear weapons program. Egypt currently has no enrichment facilities or plutonium production facilities.
But let’s look a little further. The bottom line of Oliver Bloom's analysis is that Egypt has considered nuclear weapons in the context of its national security. That’s likely to continue. Egypt has also been the head of the Non-Aligned Movement and has called for a Middle East Nuclear Weapon Free Zone. NTI’s country profile is also useful. (Thanks to the Armchair Generalist for these two links.) Egypt is a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) but lacks an Additional Protocol, and has not ratified the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. But those things are also true of other countries in the region.
Unless Egypt’s government turns out to be fanatically militaristic, it’s likely that reasonable national security interests will continue to determine its approach to nuclear weapons. Its government has confirmed that the peace treaty with Israel still applies. A consideration in continuing the peace treaty may well be the American aid that is posited on this relationship. It would be good to see that aid turned more to supporting and developing the Egyptian economy than to weapons buys, but we are in early days yet. These factors make an Egyptian desire for nuclear weapons less likely.
The new Egypt is likely to be less willing to go along unquestioningly with America and Israel. We can expect to see more concern from Egypt about Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, and some in Israel feel that it will now be more difficult to attack Iran. This may help to damp down Israeli militarism and brutality toward Palestinians, which is likely to turn out to be a good thing for Israel, as well as to decrease Egyptian desire for nuclear weapons.
Egypt did some work toward nuclear weapons in the 1970s. But so did many countries before they ratified the NPT, which Egypt did in 1981. An IAEA report lists experiments from Egypt’s pre-NPT period that were not declared when Egypt ratified the NPT. The report contains some questions about activities post-1981, but overall, this is more a matter of clearing the books than evidence of a covert program.
The plutonium work seems to have been abandoned two decades ago. [NTI]Public statements are cheap, and states without an undeclared nuclear power on their northern border have been known to make them.
The Middle East and South Asia are the world’s proliferation hotspots. They contain the three countries that have not joined the NPT, and some of the others may have ambitions toward nuclear weapons. Iran’s desire to be fully self-sufficient in nuclear matters may mask such an ambition. Israel bombed a site in Syria said to have been a nuclear reactor built with help from the North Koreans, and Syria has not allowed international inspection of that site.
A number of countries in the Middle East, including Egypt, are moving toward acquiring power reactors. It is difficult, and some would say impossible, to go from a power reactor to a bomb, but the know-how gained in operating such a reactor can help in a nuclear weapons program. So the alarm has been sounded on possible nuclear agreements between the United States and Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Those agreements do not require that those states refrain from reprocessing nuclear material, as did a similar agreement with the United Arab Emirates.
I would guess that all pending nuclear agreements with countries in the Middle East are now on hold until things settle down in the area. The disparity among countries is hard to understand. But two things interfere with more restrictive agreements.
First, the NPT’s Article IV guarantees the full nuclear fuel cycle for peaceful uses to signatories of the treaty. This means that countries buying nuclear fuel cycle technologies must submit to inspection by the IAEA to make sure they are not developing nuclear weapons. The purpose of the Additional Protocols is to increase the scope of the inspections. Jordan has an Additional Protocol, but Saudi Arabia does not.
Second, the Bush administration’s signing of a nuclear trade agreement with India has opened questions for all subsequent agreements. India has not signed the NPT and has developed nuclear weapons and therefore should not have nuclear trade with NPT nations like the United States open to it. But by a series of waivers, this trade has been opened up. India has not had to agree not to reprocess, an essential part of its weapons program, so it is not up to the United States unilaterally to go beyond the requirements of the NPT.
Finally, the question of a Middle East Nuclear Weapons Free Zone has been raised for several decades, often by Arab states wanting to shine a spotlight on Israel’s nuclear weapons program. Israel’s response has been that its security must come first. The Obama administration is planning for a conference on such a Zone in 2012. With a changed government in Egypt and perhaps in other countries, more substantive negotiations than in the past may be possible. Iran’s apparent ambitions are threatening to many of those countries, and Israel may see that its military might is no longer sufficient. Both of those factors, plus new government(s) that are dealing with economic development, may lead to an agreement to engage in real talks.