The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Nuclear Egypt?

Once again "diplomats" are telling journalists that Egypt has a program to build nuclear weapons:

VIENNA, Austria - The U.N. atomic watchdog agency has found evidence of secret nuclear experiments in Egypt that could be used in weapons programs, diplomats said Tuesday.
The diplomats told The Associated Press that most of the work was carried out in the 1980s and 1990s but said the International Atomic Energy Agency also was looking at evidence suggesting some work was performed as recently as a year ago.

But look further down the story to see exactly what they're talking about:

The diplomat said the Vienna-based IAEA had not yet drawn a conclusion about the scope and purpose of the experiments. But the work appeared to have been sporadic, involved small amounts of material and lacked a particular focus, the diplomat said.
That, he said, indicated that the work was not directly geared toward creating a full-scale program to make nuclear weapons.
The diplomat said that Egypt's program was not "cohesive."

I mentioned this story (here, here and here) when it first came out in early November and seemed to be more of an attack on Mohamed Al Baradei than one on Egypt, with some sources suggesting that Baradei had helped cover up the Egyptian program during his tenure as head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN's nuclear watchdog.

Since it was just announced at the beginning of the week that Baradei would be running unopposed to a third term despite US objections, the timing is a bit suspicious. Equally suspicious is the State Dept's answer to the allegations -- take a look at yesterday's Q&A on the topic, in which the State spokesman evades all attempts to find out whether the US is raising the issue bilaterally with Egypt:

QUESTION: Do you have any comment on this IAEA report regarding Egypt and the research with uranium that may be in violation of non-proliferation treaties?
MR. ERELI: We've seen the press reports. We don't have anything definitive or authoritative from the IAEA. I expect we'll be discussing these press reports with them.
As a general matter, we certainly believe it's imperative that member-states comply with their nuclear safeguards obligations, and we support the International Atomic Energy Agency in its efforts to investigate and document compliance by member states with their Nuclear Proliferation Treaty obligations and safeguards agreements. And I would note that Egypt is a member of the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty or is a signatory to Nuclear Proliferation Treaty and has an active safeguards agreement with the IAEA.
QUESTION: But you haven't jumped on this yet? Nobody's been in touch with the Egyptian Government yet?
MR. ERELI: Not that I'm aware, on this issue.
QUESTION: But, I'm sorry, did you say we'll be discussing it with them?
MR. ERELI: With the IAEA.
QUESTION: Oh, with the IAEA. I see. Isn't there an impact on U.S. foreign policy?
MR. ERELI: Well, let's see what the facts are before talking about impact.
QUESTION: Well, in the Middle East, your former friend, Abu Mazen --
QUESTION: Actually, could I just follow up --
MR. ERELI: I'm sorry, let's continue this.
QUESTION: -- follow up on that. I mean, does the U.S., separately from the IAEA, have any concerns or any information that corroborates?
MR. ERELI: I think the -- we -- at this point, we would defer to the IAEA to present the evidence that it has. I'm not in a position to talk about what indications we may or may not have. I think that, in our experience, Egypt has been a responsible -- has been a responsible member of the NPT and has a -- as I said, has an active safeguards agreement with the IAEA. And that's our view of the situation.
QUESTION: With all your criticism of the IAEA in the past, though, about reports on different countries, why would you just wait and take the IAEA's word for something and not check with Egypt yourself?
MR. ERELI: Well, you know, the question was about press reports that the IAEA has discovered things, so let's see what the IAEA has, let's discuss it in the proper forum, which is the IAEA, and, with the other members of the IAEA, based on what the findings are, decide what the appropriate action is. You guys are, you know, saying -- I think jumping to conclusions and saying take steps before you know what the facts are.
QUESTION: No. Why don't you just ask?
MR. ERELI: The issue is let's find the facts. The IAEA is the body with the authority to investigate member-states' compliance with the NPT and with safeguards agreements. The questions relate to those kinds of activities, so it's perfectly appropriate to look to the IAEA to report on what they've found and to act on that basis.
So it's, you know, it's -- that's the procedure that works, that's the procedure that we'll follow, and it's on that basis that we'll make decisions about what appropriate next steps are.
QUESTION: Is it possible to find out if the U.S. has ever bilaterally raised this issue in the past with Egypt?
MR. ERELI: I can ask.