Egypt Can't Make Up Its Mind about Iran's Nuclear Program

Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Moscow.

Cairo’s stance has long been ambiguous.

In discussing the reaction to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, referred to by the Persian acronym Barjam, predicting the next move of key regional powers—notably Egypt—has been particularly difficult for proliferation scholars. As mentioned in my previous analysis, Israel and Saudi Arabia offered guarded acceptance of the deal, but reserved the right to reevaluate their decision should Iran fail to comply with the deal.

Israel has used an array of strategies to roll back Iran’s program, but it has not launched a preemptive attack on Iranian facilities because of intense divisions between the civilian and military leadership and a failure to secure American support. Saudi Arabia, a country that could have been expected to launch its own nuclear military program, according to the security model of proliferation, seems to have taken a low-key approach. The kingdom, under pressure from the United States, reluctantly accepted the JCPOA, but has worked on creating a hedging strategy should Iran abrogate the agreement.

Like Israel and Saudi Arabia, Egypt offered guarded acceptance, but reserved the right to reevaluate its decision should Iran fail to comply with the deal. Egypt has had a stormy relation with the Iranian regime. The two countries broke off diplomatic relations in 1979 and, despite several attempts at reconciliation, notably during the period of President Hosni Mubarak, they only resumed relations under President Mohamed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood in 2011. President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who replaced Morsi in 2014, has been much more critical. He has blamed Tehran for aiding the violent Muslim Brotherhood resistance and for helping to destabilize the Sinai Desert through the Iran-aligned Hamas forces in Gaza. Echoing Saudi grievances, Egyptian officials described Iran’s involvement in Yemen as not helpful.

Egypt’s attitude toward Tehran’s nuclear project has differed from that of Saudi Arabia and Israel in ways that make it complex and occasionally contradictory. Egypt’s ambivalence toward nuclear energy in general and nuclear weapons in particular goes a long way toward explaining this complexity. Gamal Abdel Nasser, who became president in 1954, was among the first Middle East leaders to consider nuclear power. He created the Egyptian Atomic Energy Commission in 1954, which is currently known as the Atomic Energy Authority, and negotiated a number of agreements with the Soviet Union, under which Egypt received the ETRR-1 two-megawatt light-water research reactor, located in Inshas.

After Israel unveiled the Dimona reactor in December 1961, Nasser stepped up its nuclear rhetoric. He announced that should Israel acquire nuclear weapons, “we would secure atomic weapons at any cost.” Indeed, Egypt tried to buy a heavy water–moderated reactor capable of producing plutonium, an alternative to the more arduous process of enriching uranium to weapon grade used in nuclear weapons. Reports at the time indicated that Nasser wanted the Soviet Union, China or India to supply Egypt with nuclear weapons. In line with his growing pan-Arabism, Nasser envisioned a pan-Arab nuclear force led by Egypt. The devastating loss in the Six-Day War in 1967, however, put Egypt’s nuclear ambition on pose.

Neither President Anwar Sadat nor Hosni Mubarak, who succeeded him in 1981, were nuclear enthusiasts. As a matter of fact, the Mubarak administration was even lukewarm toward civilian nuclear technology. After a number of failed attempts, following the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, negotiations to buy a nuclear reactor were terminated. Instead, in 1992 Egypt bought the ETRR-2 twenty-two-megawatt light-water reactor, which operates in the Nuclear Research Center in Inshas. According to the Nuclear Threat Initiative, Egypt experimented with uranium conversion and also the reprocessing of uranium and thorium. A storage facility in Inshas is said to contain three kilograms of uranium metal, some sixty-seven kilograms of imported uranium tetrafluoride, 9.4 kilograms of thorium compounds, one kilogram of uranium rods enriched to 10 percent, and very small quantities of domestically fabricated UF2, UF3 and UF4. Egypt imported most of the materials before joining the NPT, but failed to report them at the time. In addition, Egypt carried out experiments in nuclear reprocessing in a two-stage process. First, natural uranium was irradiated in its ETRR-1 and ETRR-2 research reactors. Second, the irradiated material was dissolved in nitric acid, which, as a rule, is used to recover plutonium-239. Nuclear reprocessing is controversial, because plutonium-239 is fissile and can be used to create an atomic bomb. Egypt denied that the process involved plutonium, but the IAEA cited Egypt for failing to declare the experiments in 2004.