Arab nuclear ambitions spurred by Israel, Iran

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

CAIRO, Egypt -- Questions about why Arabs would want nuclear weapons are usually answered with one word: Israel.

But the latest allegations about Arab nuclear ambitions -- involving Egypt -- are a reminder of the inadequacies of simple answers in an uncertain and unstable part of the world.

If Egypt were pursuing nuclear weapons, which it denies, it may have been driven by fear of Iran as much as of Israel, by geopolitical concerns or by events in places as far away as India.

Diplomats in Vienna, Austria, where the International Atomic Energy Agency is based, told The Associated Press last week that the agency had found evidence of secret Egyptian nuclear experiments that could be part of a weapons program. The diplomats said most of the work appears to have been done in the 1980s and 1990s, but that the U.N. nuclear watchdog also was looking at evidence suggesting some work was performed as recently as a year ago.

There have been questions about Egypt's nuclear program in the past. Shannon Kyle, an expert on proliferation at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, said Egypt was known to have had a fledgling nuclear weapons program a generation ago but made little progress because of opposition from the Soviet Union.

Kyle said Egypt's activities in recent years have been confined to small-scale experimentation in areas that have weapons as well as energy uses. Egypt makes no secret of its nuclear programs for medical and research purposes. Plans announced in 2002 for a nuclear power reactor appear to have stalled. But questions have been raised about visits to Egypt by Abdul Qadeer Khan, the Pakistani scientist who has admitted passing nuclear technology to other countries.

When Libya, which had been one of Khan's clients, agreed in 2003 to dismantle its nuclear weapons program, some Arabs grumbled publicly that closing the program would only be to Israel's advantage -- and perhaps they worried privately that Libya's revelations would focus attention on their own secrets, said Fawaz Gerges, a Middle East expert.

"That tells you about the thinking informing the official establishment in the region," said Gerges, who teaches Middle Eastern and International Affairs at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y. "I know that the official Egyptian line is to deny. But common sense and history tell me that the Egyptians, the Syrians, the Iraqis have either acquired or experimented with acquiring nuclear weapons."

In response to the reports from Vienna, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit told reporters Wednesday his country was "fully committed" to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which it signed in 1968.

Egypt, though, has in recent years begun to question whether the treaty can deliver on its promise of containing the threat posed by nuclear weapons. Some critics say the treaty just freezes the military advantage nuclear powers like the United States and Russia have over the rest of the world.

India, arguing it could not risk being at a disadvantage in a world divided between nuclear haves and have-nots, tested a nuclear weapon in 1998. Its archrival Pakistan quickly answered with its own tests. Both were punished by U.S. economic sanctions, but most of the sanctions were later lifted in exchange for the countries' support of the U.S.-led war on terror.

Uday Bhaskar, an expert on proliferation and deputy director of India's Institute for Defense Studies and Analysis, said the lessons Arabs and others likely drew from the Indian tests and their aftermath was that the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty was "inadequate."

The most direct impact of the tests, Bhaskar said, was felt in Iran, which already feared Israel had a nuclear arsenal and now saw a neighbor -- Pakistan -- arming.

Iran says its nuclear program is purely peaceful, but the United States insists Iran is pursuing a nuclear bomb in a secret program the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency is seeking to contain.

Kyle, of the Stockholm institute, said Iran may have been spurred by developments in India and Pakistan, but that its nuclear activities began even earlier, in response to fears that rival Iraq was developing nuclear weapons.

Iraq's ousted dictator Saddam Hussein may even have overstated his progress toward a bomb to scare Iran, risking international wrath, Kyle said.

If U.S. accusations against Iran are correct, it would mean nuclear weapons would be in the hands of another state with which Egypt has difficult relations. Experts have long concluded Israel has nuclear weapons, though Israel refuses to confirm or deny that.

Egypt's 1979 peace treaty with Israel has endured, but is often strained by Israeli-Palestinian violence. Relations between Egypt, whose citizens are mostly Sunni Muslim and Arab, and Iran, whose citizens are mostly Shiite Muslim and Persian, have been rocky, in part because of fears Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution would inspire militant fundamentalism across the region.

India, Pakistan, Iraq, Iran, perhaps Egypt -- all linked by what proliferation expert Bhaskar calls sometimes unlikely "nuclear interconnections."

"The nuclear entropy of the world is increasing," he said.

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