Does Egypt have clandestine nuclear and chemical weapons programs that could be turned on if the Arab world’s most populous country feels threatened by neighbors?
In the last several weeks, both the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) have disclosed secret Egyptian operations in both areas — experiments in the development of plutonium and uranium fuel cycles as well as evidence of sophisticated chemical weapons help that was given to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
Neither report suggests that Egypt is going to deploy nuclear or chemical weapons, but the revelations once again raise concerns that the U.S. ally has its own superweapons programs.
“Egypt has wanted to have it very different ways,” said David Albright, president of the Institute for Science in International Security and a former IAEA inspector himself. “It wants to be seen as a responsible member of the world community, but it also is afraid of what Israel has,” meaning a nuclear arsenal.
And with Iran also believed to be developing nuclear weapons and Libya admitting it once had such ambitions, Albright and others fear Egypt is quietly preparing for all eventualities.
Of the two new revelations, the nuclear concern has received more attention.
Failure to report nuke experiments
In February, the IAEA quietly criticized Egypt for failing to report a variety of nuclear experiments for more than 20 years. The agency noted that Egypt had used “small amounts” of nuclear material to conduct experiments related to producing plutonium and enriched uranium, both of which can be used to make nuclear weapons.
While the uranium experiments appear to have been 20 or more years old, the plutonium experiments were much recent.
According to the report, between 1990 and 2003 Egypt used its two research reactors at Inshas in the Nile Delta to irradiate “small amounts of natural uranium,” conducting a total of 16 experiments.
According to the IAEA, none of the experiments fully succeeded; but in each case, they should have been reported to the agency under terms of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act.
Finally, Egypt had to admit that it had not fully disclosed the extent of its nuclear facilities.
It failed to declare the pilot plant used for the plutonium and uranium-separation experiments and did not provide design information for a new facility under construction, also at Inshas.
This facility could be used for more extensive experiments, the IAEA believed, and noted that Cairo should have notified the IAEA of its decision eight years ago.
Chided, but not accused of clandestine action
The IAEA declared the lapses a “matter of concern” and promised to pursue verification.
“The agency’s verification of the correctness and completeness of Egypt’s declarations is ongoing, pending further results of environmental and destructive sampling analyses and the agency’s analysis of the additional information provided by Egypt,” the report said.
Still the IAEA did not accuse Egypt of having a clandestine nuclear weapons program and the Egyptian government, in a statement issued in response, tried to downplay the concern, claiming “differing interpretations” of Egypt’s safeguards obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty had led to the problems.
And Cairo continued to emphasize that its “nuclear activities are strictly for peaceful purposes.”
Albright and others are not so certain.
Cause for concern?
“Egypt has been playing games and it just doesn’t fly that they didn’t know what they had to report. They knew, but didn’t want to report it, and the elimination of this doesn’t eliminate the concern,” Albright said. “Egypt is developing very slowly a capability if they decide to go nuclear.”
William M. Arkin, an NBC News analyst, said that Egypt’s revelations show that “it had gone a lot farther than Iran” in terms of experimentation with separation of plutonium, adding that if the United States had discovered such experiments in Iran, it would no doubt be raising the stakes in the current standoff with Tehran.
One reason Arkin and others cite for the seeming imbalance in criticism for the two countries’ nuclear advances is the U.S.-Egypt relationship.
The U.S. has provided Egypt with $1.3 billion a year in military aid since the Camp David peace accords in 1979, as well as an average of $815 million a year in economic assistance.
By most estimates, Egypt has received more than $50 billion in U.S. aid since 1975 and has proven one of the most reliable U.S. allies in the war on terror.
In fact, Albright, Arkin and National Defense University researcher Judith Yaphe believe that there is a connection between Iran’s nuclear ambitions and those of Egypt.
Efforts to counter Iranian program
Yaphe, who has written extensively on the effect an Iranian nuclear weapon would have on other countries in the Middle East, says part of the issue is pride.
“How can you, as an Egyptian, sit by and let Iran go past you in this area? For Egyptian scientists, it’s a loss of face,” Yaphe said. “Egyptians look very hard at what Iran has done. Iran has the money, but you don’t need a lot of money if you already have the basic infrastructure.”
Albright agreed that Iran is driving Egyptian plans, but suggests it’s more about strategy than pride. “Now, they have to be worried about Iran, as well as Israel.”
A former senior U.S. intelligence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, noted that it may not just be Iran and Israel that worry Egyptian defense officials.
“They now know that Libya, with whom they have had volatile relations the past two decades, had a nuclear program under way,” the official said, noting Libya’s admissions that it had acquired nuclear weapons development technology from Pakistan in the 1990’s.
Cairo has admitted pursuing option in the past
Egypt has admitted that in the 1960’s it pursued the nuclear option as it learned more about Israel’s nuclear program, which by 1966 had produced its first atomic bombs. At that point, they would have been targeted against Egyptian cities.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, in fact, has on occasion been willing to raise the possibility of a nuclear Egypt. In October 1998, Mubarak said that Egypt could, if need be, develop nuclear weapons, or even buy the technology. But then, as always, he dismissed the idea.
"If the time comes when we need nuclear weapons, then we will not hesitate. I say if we have to, because this is the last thing we think about," Mubarak said in remarks to the London-based al-Hayat newspaper.
"(But) we do not think now of joining the nuclear club,” Mubarak said. "Acquiring material for nuclear weapons has become very easy and it can be bought."
The United States now believes that Mubarak’s reference to being able to buy nuclear technology was not just an off-hand remark. The statement seems to coincide with a secret offer by Pakistan’s best-known nuclear scientist, A. Q. Khan, to help Egypt.
Khan made similar offers to North Korea, Iran, Iraq, and Libya, with North Korea, Iran and Libya accepting his help.
Support for Saddam
Meantime, the CIA report on chemical weapons' support to Iraq indicates that the Egyptian arms industry was sophisticated enough to allow Cairo to help Baghdad to make “technological leaps” in the 1980s, as Arab Iraq was battling Persian Iran.
The report is the first that publicly describes the extent of the support. In the early 1990s, Egypt declined to help the U.N. inspectors. In fact, say inspectors from the U.N. Special Commission on Iraq (UNSCOM), Egypt was the only major Iraqi arms supplier not to cooperate with the United Nations.
Some U.S. officials believe that if the Egyptians had turned over data about what they supplied to Saddam Hussein, it would show the advanced technical level of the Egyptian programs.
Now with the Iraqi archives open to the CIA, the extent of the Egyptian help, as well as Egypt’s own capabilities, have become public.
The report, little noticed until the Associated Press wrote about it last week, stated that in 1981, after the outbreak of war with Iran, the Iraqi government paid Egypt $12 million "in return for assistance with production and storage of chemical weapons agents." The information was contained in a little-noticed annex of their Comprehensive Report, a 350,000-word document issued last October.
Specifically, the CIA noted that, “During the early years, Egyptian scientists provided consultation, technology, and oversight allowing rapid advances and technological leaps in weaponization. With the Iran-Iraq war well under way, Egypt assisted Iraq in CW production,” making modifications to rocket systems to permit the warheads to store chemical agents, sending Iraq specially modified rockets with plastic inserts ideal for chemical weapons disbursal, and even sending its own chemical weapons experts to assist in developing sarin munitions.
The final point is the best indicator of the Egyptian chemical weapons development, according to military experts.
Iraqi sarin production soared
Sarin is a nerve agent, one of the more advanced military chemicals in the world. Prior to the mid-1980s, Iraq's arsenal was limited to mustard gas and other disfiguring agents. Sarin was used extensively by Iraq to kill Kurdish dissidents in the north as well as Iranian soldiers in the south.
And not long after the Egyptian scientists arrived in Iraq, sarin production soared. From five tons in 1984, Iraqi sarin production rose to 209 tons in 1987 and 394 tons in 1988, the report says.
"We were aware from back in 1991 that there was a link between Iraq and Egypt on chemical weapons," Ron G. Manley of Britain, a former senior U.N. adviser on chemical weapons, told the Associated Press. He said the warhead inserts, an Egyptian design, were an early clue.
And as military historians note, Egypt has been willing to use chemical weapons, being along with Iraq and Iran the only nations in recent memory to employ them. In its intervention in the 1960s Yemen civil war, Egypt repeatedly used mustard gas bombs on royalist forces in the Arabian kingdom.
Cairo has, however, denied any involvement in Iraq's program. "Egypt had no relation whatsoever with Iraq in the field of chemical weapons," Embassy spokesman Hisham Elnakib said.