As Egypt remains in a state of political upheaval, observers worry about what would happen to any potential WMD resources in the hands of a potential new government with unpredictable foreign policy aims, NBC News reported yesterday (see GSN, Nov. 15, 2010).
Intelligence documents and U.S. officials indicate that Washington's longtime ally has clandestinely conducted research on nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction for decades.
"If we found another country doing what they've done, we would have been all over them," an unidentified ex-U.S. intelligence officer said.
Cairo has acknowledged that it sought to acquire a nuclear weapons capability in the 1960s after it discovered Israel had also developed nuclear arms. Egypt joined the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in 1968 and, under the now-embattled Mubarak regime, has led calls for the Middle East to be established as a WMD-free zone. Egyptian officials, however, have hinted that should Iran acquire a nuclear weapons capability that their nation would pursue a deterrent of its own (see GSN, June 10, 2010).
Egyptian demands that Israel and Iran curb their nuclear activities "are hard to meet," according to Institute for Science and International Security President David Albright. If a planned 2012 U.N. meeting on establishing a WMD-free zone in the Middle East fails to make progress "that could be a catalyst for [the Egyptians] to leave the" Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
Last year, the International Atomic Energy Agency announced it had launched a probe into the origins of highly enriched uranium particles that turned up at an Egyptian atomic research center in 2007 and 2008. The U.N. nuclear watchdog also chastised Cairo in 2005 for not reporting a number of atomic experiments over the years. The Arab state has conducted both plutonium processing and uranium enrichment endeavors, NBC reported. The plutonium work seems to have been abandoned two decades ago.
Cairo said it had "differing interpretations" with the International Atomic Energy Agency regarding the nation's duties under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
Egypt halted a nascent civilian atomic energy effort following the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Last month, Cairo said it expected to soon call for international proposals to build the first of four planned atomic energy reactors (see GSN, Jan. 19).
Albright said Cairo's atomic operations suggest it is seeking full nuclear cycle capabilities, which can produce both nuclear reactor fuel and fissile material.
"For 15 years, they have made credible moves to build up their nuclear fuel cycle capability," he said.
Naval Postgraduate School nonproliferation analyst James Russell, though, argued it would be foolish for economic and political reasons for Cairo to return to its nuclear weapons research.
"The question is, would a follow-on regime [to Mubarak] want to revisit this?" Russell said. "Would it look at the set of calculations and pursue not a peaceful program but consider constructing an illicit program? The answer is that we don't know, but we do have an idea of what the costs of doing that would be ... and the prospect that they'd have a pretty damn difficult time trying to hide it."
Thus far, Egyptian protesters have been focused on domestic political and economic grievances with the Mubarak regime. Foreign policy matters and religious issues have largely been absent from their demands, which include free and fair elections and a new constitution. Former IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei has become a senior opposition figure and has been raised as a potential leader of any transitional government (see GSN, March 17, 2010).
"The calculus argues for not doing this ... even for an Islamic regime," Russell said.
Still, Egypt does not "have a clean record" in other fields of weapons proliferation, according to Russell and others. Should the United States end its substantial military subsidies to Egypt, Cairo might decide to make up the difference by producing and exporting additional arms systems.
A lengthy 2005 CIA report stated that Iraq in 1981 paid Egypt $12 million "in return for assistance with production and storage of chemical weapons agents."
The help was said to encompass aid in the production of sarin nerve agent weapons and alterations enabling Iraqi rocket technology to allow the weapons to hold and release chemical toxins. Iraq used chemical weapons in its 1980-88 war against Iran.
Sarin is one of the most complex chemical warfare agents and Egypt's development of the toxin is a sign of the country's chemical weapons sophistication, defense analysts say.
Egypt also used chemical weapons against Yemen in the 1960s. It has neither signed nor ratified the Conventional Weapons Convention.
The nation in the 1980s also collaborated with North Korea on missile upgrades for both states, NBC News reported (Robert Windrem, NBC News, Feb. 7).