If Iran were to overtly cross the nuclear threshold, Egyptian restraint may be temporary, since Egypt may start its own nuclear programme or find itself fully supporting Saudi Arabia’s attempts to seek parity with Iran.
The argument that Egypt views the Iranian nuclear programme in terms of ‘concern’ and not ‘alarm’ is semantic and actually undermines the core of how Egypt perceives the issue of introducing nuclear weapons to the Middle East. Egypt has consistently argued against nuclear and other WMD, and has introduced several UN initiatives in this regard. In 1974, Egypt, with Iran, introduced a UN General Assembly initiative to the UN First Committee on the Establishment of a Nuclear Weapon Free Zone in the Middle East, and the initiative has been re-adopted and built upon ever since.
The Iranian revolution of 1979 and the concept of exporting the principles of the revolution to neighbouring states in the region deeply affected Egypt. Iran’s policy of flexing hegemony caused ‘alarm’, rather than mere ‘concern’. It was but natural for Sunni, moderate Islamic Egypt to align itself with its long-time partner Saudi Arabia, especially as Iran started to increase its clandestine and insurrectionary leverage through war by proxy; consolidating its grip on Iraq; and establishing a cogent network of surrogate insurgents, particularly with Hizbullah in Lebanon. The quotation in the chapter attributed to former President Mubarak may be true, but was probably said after Egypt had made several conciliatory gestures towards Iran, to which the Iranian response was to increase its covert, anti-regime operations in Egypt through its diplomatic mission in Cairo. Iran went on to name one of Tehran’s major streets after the killer of President Sadat, following Egypt’s burial of Shah Pahlavi in Cairo in 1980, which Iran opposed, also calling for the removal of a small imperial Persian flag from the entrance of the tomb. Iran’s later dedication to attaining a nuclear edge in the Middle East as well as missile superiority, developing and upgrading its capabilities from short- to medium-range systems, increased regional anxiety by tilting the military balance further in Iran’s favour.
The assertion that, even if Iran goes nuclear, Egyptians will rehash and resort to its historic policy of ‘non-response’ – as it did with Israel – may therefore not be accurate. This argument neglects the consistent policy of Egypt to bring Israel into the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) as a non-nuclear-weapon state and place all of its nuclear activities under the full range of IAEA safeguards. The same will happen with Iran in the event of any illegal diversion of nuclear materials to a weapons programme. Restoration of full diplomatic ties between Egypt and Iran, as argued in this Whitehall Report, is a different matter from Iran going nuclear and completely tipping the power calculus in the Middle East in its favour. The latter will always be viewed with concern by any government in Egypt.
Egypt is a fully fledged member of the NPT and placed all of its facilities, including its research reactor built jointly with Argentina, under the IAEA’s safeguards. For Egypt, nuclear power is not about obtaining ‘a bomb’; the country knows very well the legal obligations, consequences, limitations and difficulties of cheating in today’s world. Instead, it is a matter of dire energy needs, as well as the primacy of rights and obligations enshrined in international instruments and treaties. Egypt is affected by the scarcity of gas supplies necessary for growing domestic consumption, and for honouring previous obligations and contracts to sell Egyptian gas to foreign importers including Israel, Spain and Jordan, among others, which can penalise Egypt if gas exports are halted. Egypt accepts the need to respect the right to peaceful enrichment – including within Iran – as long as there is rigorous inspection, with the IAEA playing an assertive and transparent role in order to reassure the international community both against hidden intentions and of the need for treaty compliance even in undeclared sites and activities.
The conclusion of the chapter asserts that the option for Jordan and Egypt in the wake of a nuclear Iran is to ‘reinforce their existing ties with the US’. This may not be completely true; there are concerns in the Arab GCC nations today that the US may strike a deal with Iran at the expense of, or without proper consideration for, GCC security. In light of US missteps, some policy-makers are now requesting that their leaders look east towards Moscow, arguing that diversification of military armament and hardware could lead to political independence with a new multimillion-dollar arms deal with Russia funded by several Gulf states. Those who argue for this approach remind us all that in 1973 the Syrian and Egyptian armies fought a war with considerable success with Soviet weapons and hardware.
If Iran were to overtly cross the nuclear threshold, Egyptian restraint may be temporary, since Egypt may start its own nuclear programme or find itself fully supporting Saudi Arabia’s attempts to seek parity with Iran. The impact of Iran’s potential nuclearisation on Egypt could not be confined to ‘domestic reputational costs’, as argued in the chapter, since the balance of power would then tilt drastically in Iran’s favour.
In conclusion, this analytical criticism is not axiomatically rigid, nor is it premeditated in its conclusions against ushering in a new era of co-operation with Iran. Iran is an important regional actor. This author also supports a scheme of co-operative security measures with Iran, depending on its willingness to co-operate more with its GCC and other regional partners. This could include a regional nuclear-fuel-cycle regime, water desalination projects, and a regional research-and-development centre focused on training, capacity building and nuclear research. The region now needs the US to be assertive in launching a regional dialogue – modelled on the working group on Arms Control and Regional Security in the Middle East, or the Six-Party talks with North Korea – in which Israel, Iran, Egypt, GCC nations and others work together to chart their own security agenda and future. A nuclear Iran would foreclose these options.
Ambassador Dr Mahmoud Karem is special adviser to the Foreign Minister of Egypt on Non Proliferation, and a former Egyptian diplomat.