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Commentary Last Updated: Nov 8th, 2007 - 00:55:17

Egypt�s nuclear step
By Linda S, Heard
Online Journal Contributing Writer

Nov 8, 2007, 00:53

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Last week, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak announced the relaunch of his country�s nuclear energy program, on hold since the 1986 Soviet Chernobyl disaster.

�Egypt will go through with the nuclear energy project in the belief that energy security is a basic element in building the future of the homeland and part and parcel of Egypt�s national security system,� he said while pledging it would be transparent, peaceful and developed in coordination with the UN nuclear watchdog, the IAEA.

Gamal Mubarak, the ruling National Democratic Party�s assistant secretary-general, subsequently fleshed out his father�s statement. The government wanted to ensure the country benefited from sustainable energy by 2022 and would immediately begin constructing four nuclear power stations, he said.

According to Egypt�s minister for electricity, the first will be built near the coast east of the Mediterranean resort town of Alexandria and besides having a 1,000-megawatt capacity will be a vital source of desalinated water. It is predicted to be up and running by 2018.

It should be mentioned that Egypt has possessed a Soviet-supplied 2-megawatt nuclear research reactor fuelled by enriched uranium since 1961 -- The Inshas Nuclear Research Center, north of Cairo.

Reports suggest that Inshas might have been upgraded to 22-megawatts over the past decade with the assistance of Argentina. It is also believed that Egypt has an indigenous source of uranium in its eastern desert, although according to the IAEA, Egypt has thus far not attempted an enrichment process.

Like Iran, Egypt is a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, under the terms of which it has the right to pursue nuclear energy for peaceful purposes and elicit assistance from nuclear powers. However, here the similarity ends. While Iran is under international siege for its nuclear ambitions, Egypt�s have been blessed by the US, France and the EU.

US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Washington would not object to Egypt�s program provided it respects the rules of the NPT and the IAEA.

�Countries that are members in good standing of the NPT and enter into agreements with the IAEA regarding safeguards for peaceful nuclear energy, we have no problem with that,� he said, adding, �Those are countries we can work with.� He should have added �with the exception of Iran.�

Director-General of the IAEA Mohammed El-Baradei told CNN at the end of last month that he had �not received any information that there is a concrete active nuclear weapons program going on right now� in Iran. El-Baradei believes Iran is cooperating and any differences can be overcome with dialogue and negotiation. Yet politicians in Washington think they know better than highly qualified and experienced inspectors in the country, and rather than rethink their aggressive stance prefer to smear anyone who isn�t prepared to dance to their politically-driven tune.

In June, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice accused El-Baradei of �muddying the message to Iran� and he later told reporters he was sick of �backseat drivers, putting in their five cents.�

The actual message is this: Countries that are friendly to the West are given carte blanche to pursue peaceful nuclear programs; those that aren�t are vilified, sanctioned and threatened with bombardment.

It appears that Egypt has taken an �if you can�t beat them, join them� attitude. For years the Egyptian government, along with many others in the region, has pushed for a nuclear-free Middle East.

At a UN conference in September, Egypt led the call for a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East, which the US, Israel and 25 EU countries chose not to endorse.

Egypt expressed its surprise and disappointment in a letter to EU leaders, signed by the foreign minister. �Cairo is unaware of the substantive reasons that led to such a decision taken by your country and I would, therefore, greatly appreciate your views on the matter,� he wrote.

In fact, there�s nothing surprising about the stance of those countries that either abstained from voting or voted against the proposal. The only nuclear country in the Middle East is, of course, Israel, which in some Western quarters is immune from criticism.

Due to the outrageous double standards openly displayed by Israel and Washington over this issue and the obsequious falling in line of their European allies, the dream of a nuclear-free Middle East has receded into the twilight zone.

Rebuffed in its efforts to get international backing for a nuclear-free region and concerned at the possibility of a nuclear-armed Iran, Egypt is sounding a clarion call for an �Arab nuclear family.�

�It is a right for all Arabs,� said an emotionally-charged Mubarak at an Arab League summit in Riyadh. Jordan, Libya, Yemen and Algeria have already announced their intentions to seek a peaceful nuclear capability while GCC leaders are set to discuss the issue later this year.

In the meantime, Saudi Arabia has proposed a way to defuse the crisis over Iran, which would also eliminate suspicions that other regional countries are covertly seeking a nuclear weapons program under cover of nuclear energy plants, and ultimately stave off an arms race.

The proposal would require GCC countries to establish a joint uranium enrichment facility in a neutral country outside the Middle East that would supply fuel to regional nations, including Iran.

�We have proposed a solution, which is to create a consortium for all users of enriched uranium to do it in a collective manner that would distribute nuclear fuel according to need,� Prince Saud Al-Faisal told the Middle East Economic Digest.

There have been mixed messages from Iran thus far. Elyas Naderan, a prominent Iranian member of Parliament called it a joke. However, a senior Foreign Ministry official Mohammad Reza Bagheri was quoted by the ISNA new agency as saying, �If Arab countries are ready to take part in a consortium with Iran . . . we are ready to do it.� If Iran is sincere in its wish to develop sustainable energy, then the Saudi proposal could be a lifeline. And besides its practical aspects, it would silence Washington�s war drums and cement the entire region, whose members could then work together to thwart an actual and omnipresent nuclear threat from Israel.

As to the question of whether there should or shouldn�t be an �Arab bomb� that�s another story for another day.

Linda S. Heard is a British specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She welcomes feedback and can be contacted by email at

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