What the Egyptian revolt means for nuclear proliferation.

When the Iranian Revolution overthrew the Shah in 1979, years of “peaceful” U.S. nuclear cooperation with the Persian dictator suddenly seemed like they had been a bad idea. In part as a result of this early assistance, Tehran is on the road to producing a bomb’s worth of weapons-grade uranium in roughly a year or less. And with protests upending governments in Egypt, Tunisia, and the rest of the Middle East, this sequence is on the cusp of repeating itself to produce a nuclear domino effect. Yet, remarkably—given its stated commitment to denuclearization—the Obama administration seems eager to pursue policies that will only make the threat worse.

The United States has had formal civilian nuclear cooperation ties with Egypt since 1981, when the country ratified the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). Before that, Cairo made several haphazard attempts to get the bomb. Such flirtations with nuclear weapons were supposed to come to an end with ratification, but unfortunately, they didn’t. Instead, President Mubarak made several public statements that Egypt would not hesitate to get nuclear arms if necessary. He has refused U.S. requests to forswear making nuclear fuel (a process that can bring states to the brink of acquiring nuclear weapons). And in 2005, his nuclear scientists admitted they had violated Egypt’s pledge to declare all sensitive nuclear activities to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Even more dangerously, unlike Iraq, Syria, and Libya—all of which have been caught attempting to develop a nuclear weapons option—Egypt has the technological capability to separate weapons-usable plutonium from spent reactor fuel, and it operates a research reactor large enough to make a bomb’s worth of plutonium each year. Meanwhile, the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest political party clamoring for a say in Cairo’s future, is on record demanding that Egypt develop nuclear weapons to balance those of Israel.

We can only hope that most Egyptians ignore this group. If, however, Egypt goes radical or remains politically unstable, the country’s nuclearization would be a major danger. One of Europe’s leading nuclear experts projects that if this were to happen, Algeria—which also has the technology to extract nuclear-weaponsusable plutonium and a reactor making nearly a bomb’s worth of the stuff each year—would be politically compelled to match Egypt bomb for bomb. And such a nuclear domino effect could easily occur in the context of popular revolutions spreading throughout the Middle East: According to Standard and Poor’s Jordan and Algeria are the next Arab states whose governments are likely to be destabilized.

Jordan currently lacks any major nuclear facilities, but it is actively seeking French and South Korean help to build several large reactors, and it has resisted American pleas to forswear making nuclear fuel in exchange for U.S. nuclear assistance. Likewise, there is a proliferation threat from Saudi Arabia, a country that has more than hinted that it will get its own bomb if and when Iran does. It, too, is seeking “peaceful” nuclear reactors and has rejected American pleas to forswear making nuclear fuel as a condition for securing U.S. nuclear cooperation.

What is truly flabbergasting, though, is the fact that the Obama administration seems willing to accede to both Jordan’s and Saudi Arabia’s demands. At almost exactly the same time Egyptian protestors were filing into Tahrir Square on January 25, a highly respected arms control news service reported that the U.S. government was discussing nuclear deals with Jordan and Saudi Arabia which would not include the “gold standard” safeguards that the Obama administration has demanded from other countries, such as the United Arab Emirates (UAE), to ensure that nuclear cooperation is less likely to enable nuclear proliferation. In specific, these deals lacked any requirement that Saudi Arabia or Jordan forswear making nuclear fuel or ratify a new, tougher nuclear inspections regime known as the IAEA Additional Protocol.

Pretty soon, the administration was calling up to Capitol Hill to explain that the story was exaggerated. But it wasn’t exaggerated by much. As one veteran nuclear reporter noted a week later, the State Department might be retreating from the “gold standard” in these deals. The United States may only insist that Jordan refrain from making nuclear fuel for the first ten years of any U.S. nuclear cooperation agreement. Presumably, the same would be allowed of Saudi Arabia. (And, once the UAE sees the bar being lowered for its neighbors, it has the legal right under the terms of its own nuclear agreement to abandon its commitment to the “gold standard” as well.) 

This, in turn, has aggravated members of Congress. The chair of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Republican Ileana Ros Lehtinen, was already on the warpath over the administration’s unwillingness publicly to explain the generous terms of the U.S.-Russian nuclear cooperation agreement which entered into force in January 2011. She and others in Congress were also irked about reports that the Obama administration wanted to cut a U.S. civilian nuclear cooperation deal with Vietnam which was similarly lacking the UAE nonproliferation conditions. And now, the House committee is poised to mark up legislation that would require both the House and the Senate to vote on all nuclear cooperation agreements if they fail to contain the “gold standard” level of nuclear safeguards. Senator John Ensign has introduced similar legislation in the Senate, which would require all U.S. nuclear cooperation agreements to be approved by Congress.

White House officials seem to think this will all soon blow over. They’ve backed away from the deals on the Hill, saying that none of the reported deals with Jordan or Saudi Arabia are imminent; and they are temporarily slow-rolling further nuclear negotiations until—presumably—the political situation in Egypt looks more stable. But it would be foolish for anyone who is concerned about a Middle Eastern nuclear domino effect, whether a Republican or Democrat, to let these agreements go forward without adequate safeguards. And the Obama administration, which has made such a show of its commitment to ending the spread of nuclear weapons, has a lot of explaining to do.

Correction: Originally, this article stated that Under Secretary Tauscher and Deputy Secretary Poneman rushed up to Capitol Hill to assure lawmakers that the story was exaggerated. In fact, Tauscher’s office called up to the Hill to arrange a meeting where they could explain that the story was exaggerated.

Correction: The article has been further revised to state only that the administration called Capitol Hill to explain that the story was exaggerated. In addition, the article’s language about the State Department’s nuclear cooperation agreement with Jordan has been revised to say only that the State Department might be retreating from the “gold standard.” We regret the errors.

Henry Sokolski is executive director of The Nonproliferation Policy Education Center and editor of Nuclear Power’s Global Expansion: Weighing Its Costs and Risks

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