Egypt and Saudi Arabia’s Policies toward Iran’s Nuclear Program

Egypt and Saudi Arabia’s Policies toward Iran’s Nuclear Program

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Tariq Khaitous

Postdoctoral Fellow, The James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies


Over the last three years, the Iranian nuclear program has become one of the most eminent threats for stability and security in the Middle East. Despite the recent National Intelligence Estimate that declared that Iran gave up its nuclear weapons program in 2003, it appears that Iran is still keeping open its nuclear option evident by its uranium enrichment program. The evolution of the program is constantly influencing the foreign policies of Middle Eastern countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, two major Arab countries. From the onset of the Islamic revolution until the election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, their relationships with Iran have been virtually frozen. Previously, both countries considered Iran as a threat to the region and they shared the belief that the nuclearization of Iran would undermine their security. This might lead other countries in the region to seek weapons of mass destruction (WMD) to maintain a balance of power in the region.

However, after the election of Ahmadinejad in 2005, their strategies for dealing with the Iranian nuclear issue and the international community have diverged. The Egyptian government has recently begun to appear more hostile to sanctions or any military action against Tehran[1] while it seeks to restore diplomatic ties with Iran[2] after 28 years of difficult relations. Saudi Arabia, however, has maintained its hostile position vis-à-vis Iran. The Saudi Kingdom is notably concerned about the growing influence of Iran in the region.[3] The rivalry between Tehran and Riyadh is rooted in both religion and politics and the eventual nuclearization of Iran could initiate a regional political confrontation.

It is interesting that the policies of the two major U.S. allies in the Middle East regarding the Iranian crisis diverged after the election of Ahmadinejad, even when both countries have been concerned about this issue.

Relationships with Iran

Prior to the 1979 revolution, Saudi Arabia and Egypt enjoyed good diplomatic relations with Iran. These relations were complicated, however, after the Shah was overthrown in 1979 during the Islamic Revolution. Saudis and Egyptians were worried that the revolution would spread and affect the entire region. They were also concerned about Iranian support for extremist Islamic groups. Iran served as a midway stop for the Arab Mujahideen, who, upon returning from Afghanistan, focused their efforts on fighting the Arab regimes. These rebellious activities supported by the Iranian regime were successful in destabilizing Sudan, a neighbor of Egypt and Saudi Arabia, an act that intensified these countries' hostility towards Iran. During the Iraq-Iran war, Saudi Arabia, like Egypt, supported Saddam Hussein in his long fight against the Iranians. They both helped Baghdad politically and diplomatically to weaken Iran and its ideology.

However, in recent years, there have been significant developments in the relationship between Egypt and Iran. Both nations are engaging in diplomatic talks to improve bilateral ties amid increasing tension over the Iranian nuclear issue.[4] The two nations are expected to begin a new era in order to improve their relationship and resume dialogue to prevent any potential military attack on Iran's facilities that would threaten regional security on the whole. When asked about the prospect of normalizing diplomatic relations to the ambassadorial level with Iran, Egypt State Information Service reported that Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit said in September that "we seek to normalize relations with Tehran through constructive consultations."[5] The statement by Abul Gheit was made after his meeting with Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi. The Egyptian official added in a press release following the meeting that the two countries agreed to promote relations, especially in terms of bilateral relations at the senior official level followed by relations at the foreign ministry. The visit of Mr. Araghchi was the first concrete initiative taken by Iran after President Ahmadinejad declared in May 2007 that his country was ready to open an embassy in Cairo if Egypt agreed to do the same in Tehran.[6]

However, Saudi Arabia does not believe Tehran's declarations to Cairo. It has not expressed any intention of restoring relations with Iran. The Saudis are concerned about Iran's hostility towards the monarchies that control oil in the Gulf, particularly Saudi Arabia. Recently, the Saudi newspaper Elaph reported that King Abdullah has urged Iran to curb its nuclear ambitions and called on the West to approach it with more caution. During his visit to Germany on November 7, 2007, the Saudi King said, "Iran has announced its nuclear program is intended for peaceful use. If this is the case, then we don't see any justification for escalation, confrontation and challenge, which only makes issues more complicated."[7]

Currently, Riyadh is trying to contain Iran and isolate its influence rather than restore relations. The Saudis believe that Iran is attempting to wrest regional leadership from Saudi Arabia through its suspicious nuclear activities and involvement in the issues of the surrounding Arab states.

To understand the reasons behind the divergences between the approaches taken by Cairo and Riyadh, it is imperative to examine the factors below:

Egypt's Domestic Issues

Egyptian views toward Iran's nuclear program are complex and contradictory. While the regime is opposed to a nuclear armed Iran, the majority of the population supports Iran's nuclear ambitions. In its view, the American policy in the Middle East is guided by its support for Israel. Iran and Syria are the only countries in the region that challenge Israel and U.S. hegemony. The Egyptian public strongly denounces the U.S. for turning a blind eye to the Israeli nuclear program. It also believes that it is unfair that Israel is the only country that has nuclear weapons in the region. In this regard, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood has urged its own government to develop a nuclear capability not to defend the country against Iran, which is also a Muslim state, but to terrify Israel[8].

Egypt fears that the political standoff between Iran and the West will lead to a military confrontation with the U.S. or Israel. Such escalation would increase Islamic militancy and weaken the domestic policy of Mubarak's regime. The Muslim Brotherhood, which was banned as a political party, would rise in popularity within society. In the parliamentary election of 2005, it succeeded in winning 88 seats for the first time in history and represented 20% of the Egyptian parliament. During the Israeli-Hezbollah war of 2006, it was reported that the Brotherhood recruited about 10,000 volunteers to join Hezbollah in its fight against Israel[9].

Egypt also wants to maintain its prominent role as a key country in the Middle East peace process. After the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine, the credibility of Egypt's diplomacy has begun to wane. The failure of Egypt to prevent a nuclear armed Iran would have a major impact on the Palestinian Israeli dispute. It would increase tension between Tehran and Israel, which would undermine Egypt's role in the region by making the mediation between Palestinians and Israelis even more difficult.

The onslaught of terrorist attacks in Egypt is also a source of concern for Mubarak's regime.[10] The brutal attacks in Taba, Cairo, Sharm el-Sheik, and Dahab[11] have brought the question of Islamic extremism in Egypt to the surface once again. Despite the harsh government crackdown and the imprisonment of terrorists, extremist groups such as Al Gama'a al-Islamiyya remain a domestic threat to the country.[12] These groups reject the West and Egypt's regime. Their political goal is to remove Mubarak from power and establish an Islamic theocracy, using Iran as a model.[13]

Egypt's regime is also facing large public dissatisfaction regarding the maintenance of the Emergency Law. Since 1967, this law has been extended for two- or three-year periods. It was established by the Egyptian government during the Arab-Israeli war and re-established after the assassination of Anwar Sadat in October 1981. According to Egyptian legislation, the aim of this law is to preserve the security of the state and to protect Egyptian citizens.[14] However, Egyptians consider it an anti-democratic law that gives the president exclusive powers to oppress freedom of speech, arrest journalists, and censor local newspapers, journals, media, and books. They also believe that it allows the president to erode civil liberties and the activities of the civil society groups and leaders of the opposition could be sent to jail without any charges. In May 2006, when the government extended the Emergency Law for another three years, activists, leaders of the opposition, and ordinary Egyptians expressed their criticism over the decision. George Ishaq, coordinator and spokesman for the Kifayah opposition group said the law is "used specifically to target the opposition." Mr. Ishaq added that nearly 50 Kifayah members were arrested under the Emergency Law's provisions during demonstrations in April 2006.[15] The president of the Cairo Center for Human Rights, Mr. Bahi Addine, also expressed his criticism of the Emergency Law saying that "The Emergency Law succeeded only to censor the political activities with which the government does not agree."[16]

Weaknesses of the Nonproliferation Regime

Many Saudis and Egyptians have expressed their concerns about the weaknesses of the NPT and declared that it is not at all serving Arab interests. It failed to disarm Israel and compel it to join the treaty as a non-nuclear state. The calls from Egypt and Saudi Arabia to create a Weapon of Mass Destruction Free Zone in the Middle East have not met with success.[17] However, if Iran becomes a nuclear power, it is likely that Egypt would withdraw from the NPT. The regional ambitions of Tehran are clear to Cairo and Riyadh. The competition between the two major Arab capitals for influence over the Middle East is intense. Because the Gulf is more concerned about the Iranian program than Egypt, Egyptian officials may fear that Saudi Arabia might go nuclear with the assistance of Pakistan as a hedge against a possible Iranian nuclear weapons program.

In September 2003, the Guardian reported that Saudi Arabia had launched a strategic security review that included the possible acquisition of nuclear weapons.[18] According to the Guardian report, the strategy paper being considered at the highest levels in Riyadh sets out three options:

  • To acquire a nuclear capability as a deterrent;
  • To maintain or enter into an alliance with an existing nuclear power that would offer protection;
  • To try to reach a regional agreement on having a nuclear-free Middle East.

Saudi officials immediately denied the allegations and reported that there is no nuclear program in Saudi Arabia, nor is the country considering acquisition of nuclear weapons of any kind. However, the option that Saudi Arabia might desire nuclear weapons later on remains possible.

Egypt is conscious of the strong relationships between Islamabad and Riyadh in terms of nuclear cooperation. Both countries "see a world that is moving from non-proliferation to the proliferation of nuclear weapons."[19] An article in the German magazine Cicero, alleges that many Saudi scientists have been working since the mid-1990s in Pakistan's nuclear facilities.[20]

Saudi rulers, who are Sunni Wahabi Muslims, believe that it is difficult to thwart the Iranian Shi'ite regime from pursuing its nuclear ambitions. To counter what it considers to be multiple regional threats, the Kingdom might decide to move ahead and accept the nuclear expertise of Pakistan in exchange for free or cheap Saudi oil. Thus, the Iranian and Saudi Arabian response to the local geopolitical threats could have a major impact on the global security regimes, even if such actions are considered by both countries as measures to balance the power and stabilize the Gulf region.[21]

It was also reported that Egypt had been engaged in clandestine nuclear activities. On January 4, 2005, the IAEA announced that it had found evidence that Egypt had conducted nuclear experiments that could be used to develop a nuclear weapon.[22] Various fission products were discovered by IAEA inspectors near a nuclear facility, a possible indication that work on plutonium separation had been conducted.[23] Egyptian officials denied the allegations and noted that the activities were legal, but they simply had neglected to declare them. The investigation of the IAEA concluded that Egyptian nuclear activities conformed to the NPT regime. However, the failure to declare activities to the IAEA raised doubts about Egypt's intentions, the extent of its nuclear activities, infrastructure and capabilities, and whether it pursued other undeclared activities related to the development of nuclear weapons. Even though Egypt supports the nonproliferation regime and calls on the creation of a nuclear weapons free zone in the Middle East, its criticism of the weaknesses of the IAEA safeguards trigger fears that it might be considering building a breakout capability.[24]

International and Regional Ambitions

Egypt is seeking a Security Council Seat. The attempt to expand the Security Council in 2005 failed, but it remains on the UN agenda for coming years. If Africa is granted a permanent seat on the Security Council, the honor would probably be bestowed on either Nigeria or South Africa. However, Egypt believes that it is fit to represent both the Arab world and African nations in the powerful body. It insists on the legitimate right of Muslims and Arab nations, which together represent over 1.3 billion people, whose interests would be considered on an equal basis with the representatives of other cultures and civilizations.[25]

According to the Arab News website, Egyptian Foreign Minister Aboul Gheit said, "Egypt has made significant contributions on the regional and international level, and that it plays a central role in the African, Arab and Islamic spheres." He added, "Such considerations reflect Egypt's clear eligibility for and appropriate capacity in discharging the responsibilities of membership in the Security Council."[26] Nigeria and South Africa also believe that they are qualified to represent Africa. The African Union has not yet decided on the region's best candidate states for permanent membership on the Council, but Egypt is strongly lobbying for a seat.

Unlike Egypt, Saudi Arabia does not aspire to join the Security Council. However, the maintenance of its regional leadership remains vital for the Saudi presence in the Middle East. Recent political developments show that Iranian power is increasing in the region. Tehran is involved in three primary conflicts in the Middle East. First, it has strong relationships with the Shi'a organization Hezbollah, which Iran uses as a tool to destabilize Israel and to bolster its influence in Lebanon. Second, Iran is involved in the conflict between Israel and Palestine through its support of the Islamic movement of Hamas. Third, Iran's influence now is more present in Iraq due to its spiritual and traditional relationships with the Iraqi Shi'a community. In all these major issues, Saudi Arabia has been using all its economic and diplomatic efforts to curb the influence of the Iranian regime on the Shi'a community in Iraq and also in the Gulf states.[27]

During a rare visit to Riyadh in March 2007, President Ahmedinajad discussed with King Abdullah the growing violence and political crises in Lebanon, Palestine, and Iraq. He also evoked the nuclear issue and highlighted that if his country were to be attacked by the United States or Israel, the Gulf region would also be affected. However, Saudi officials insisted that they supported the UN Security Council resolutions and they were ready to defend themselves in case of regional confrontation.[28]

Saudi newspapers and Wahabi religious leaders warn of the "Persian onslaught" and consider Iran a threat to Saudi interests, internal stability, and the Muslim world.[29] During Al Hajj periods, Iran reportedly encourages some of its pilgrims to riot in the holy places of Mecca to destabilize the Saudi forces. They often call on Muslims to remove the Saudi family, seize its oil wealth, and strip it of its role as protector of Islamic sacred places.[30] Saudi officials always emphasize that the Iranian regime established by the Shi'a clerics is not approachable. They utilize their local newspapers, and radio and TV stations to tarnish Iran and its image. Already, the rise of Iran may be causing internal divisions within Saudi Arabia.

Criticism within the Wahabi regime, the political rivalry between the Saudi family members, and the difficulties of Riyadh to challenge Iran are all factors that may lead Saudi Arabia to review its foreign policy to secure its role as one of the primary Middle Eastern powers.


A nuclear Iran would likely weaken Saudi and Egyptian influence in the Middle East. It would have a major impact on their prominent roles as U.S. allies in the region. Many Arab countries believe that in addition to the Iranian crisis, Israel's nuclear arsenal is also a cause for concern. If Saudi Arabia and Egypt found themselves surrounded by nuclear-armed Israel and Iran, it would greatly increase pressure on them to look for other security alternatives. Egypt would be in a very critical situation. It might develop a secret nuclear program but the political consequences of such a venture would be great. The U.S. might cut its annual financial support to Egypt. Cairo would also lose its credibility in the view of its fellow African countries. And finally there is the scenario of a nuclear Saudi Arabia. It is unlikely that Riyadh would develop its own nuclear capabilities, but it could explore the possibility of acquiring nuclear weapons technology from another source, such as Pakistan. This could lead the Middle East to a regional arms race which is likely to be destabilizing. Nuclear proliferation would be uncontrollable and the global nonproliferation regime that helped to decrease nuclear proliferation in the past could collapse if many actors chose to go nuclear.

[1] "Egypt rejects military action against Iran," Khaleej Times, 19 September 2007,
[2] Manal Lotfi, Omar Abdelrazak, "Mesr wa Iran tabda'an hiwaran wizarian tamheedan listi'nafi al3ala9kat addiplomacia" [Egypt and Iran started ministerial talks to restore their diplomatic relations], Acchark Al Awsat, 19 December 2007,
[3] Michael Roston, "Report: Saudis, US sponsoring covert action against Iran," The Raw Story, 7 May 2007,
[4] "Egypt, Iran seek ties normalization with common stance against war threat," China View, 20 September 2007,
[5] "Egypt rejects any military solution to the Iranian crisis," Egypt State Information Service, 20 September 2007,
[6] See Note [4]
[7] Iitidal Aalama, "Al almane ihtachadou limouchahadat al malik fi almabna al ahmar" [Germans came together to see King Abdullah in the Red Building], Elah, 8 November 2007,
[8] Sammy Salama, Khalid Hilal, "Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood Presses Government for Nuclear Weapons", WMD Insight, November 2006 Issue,
[9] Dario Christiani, "Mubarak Pressured by Domestic Dissent and Regional Challenges", PINR, 13 September 2006,
[10] "Egypt and Anti terrorism," Egypt State Information Service, August 2007,
[11] Taba, October 7, 2004, a truck drove into the lobby of the Taba Hilton, 34 killed and 159 wounded. Cairo, April 30, 2005, primitive terrorist attacks considered to have been minor, no loss of life other than those of the terrorists. Sharm el-Sheikh, July 2005, series of bomb attacks, 88 people were killed and 150 wounded. Daha, April 24, 2006, a series of bombs exploded in the popular Dahab resort, 23 people were killed including tourists, 80 were wounded.
[12] "Terror in Egypt," Terrorism update, January 1998,
[13] Al Gama'a al-Islamiyya is inspired by the Iranian Islamic revolution. Egyptian Government believes that Iran, Sudan, and Al Qaida militant Islamic groups support the group.
[14] Omayma Abdelatif, "Beyond the Emergency," Al-Ahram Weekly, 10-14 August 2005,
[15] "Egypt extends Emergency Laws," Voanews, 4 May 2006,
[16] "9kanoun attawari9k jarima fi ha9ki mesr : assiyasioun akadou annaho 9kayada harakat al ahzab ahdara al horriyate wa lam yamna3 al irhabe", [The Emergency Law is a crime against Egypt : Politicians confirmed that it censored the activities of the political parties, eroded liberties and did not prevent terrorism], Al Wafd newspapers, 31 October 2006,
[17] "Egypt profile," NTI Website, November 2006,
[18]Ewen MacAskill and Ian Traynor, "Saudis consider nuclear bomb," The Guardian, 18 September 2003,
[19] "Saudi Arabia May Go Nuclear In Response To Iranian Nuke Program," ParaPundit, 23 October 2003,
[20] Sammy Salama, Gina Cabrera-Farraj, "Report Alleges Saudi Arabia Working on "Secret nuclear program" with Pakistani Assistance," WMD Insights, May 2006 Issue,
[21] " The US, Iran and Saudi Arabia : necessary steps towards a New Gulf security order," Policy Dialogue Brief, October 2005,
[22] "Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement in the Arab Republic of Egypt," International Atomic Energy Agency, GOV/2005/9, 14 February 2005,
[23] "Egypt New revelation about pass nuclear activities," Yana Feldman and Mary Beth Nikitin with contributions from Jack Boureston, First Watch International, 4 March 2004,
[24] Egypt might follow Iran's "peaceful" example. It could develop a civilian nuclear program to the point of having a nuclear military option.
[25] Wafula Okumu, "Africa and the UN Security Council Permanent Seats," Global Policy Forum, 28 April 2007, See also United Nations General Assembly document A/59/PV.10,
[26] Tarek El-Tablawy, "Egypt Lobbies for Security Council Seat," Arab News, 26 September 2004,
[27] In Saudi Arabia, the Shi'a makes up about 10 percent of the population, but they are heavily concentrated in its oil-rich Eastern Province. Bahrain's population is majority Shi'ite, although the regime is Sunni. Qatar and Emirates also have minorities of Shi'a. When Hezbollah was attacked by Israel in July 2006, more than 4,000 Gulf Muslim Shi'a were reported to have joined a protest march in their countries to denounce the military onslaught.
[28] Hassan M. Fattah and Nazila Fathi, « Iran and Saudis Plan Summit Talks on Crises », The New York Times, 2 March 2007,
[29] Hassan M Fattah, "Talk in Saudi Arabia turns to Iranian threat," International Health Tribune, 21 December 2007,
[30] "Saudi Arabia quietly working to curb Iran's influence in the region," International Health Tribune, 2 December 2006,

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