Middle East — 06 July 2006

The spectre of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons has been causing apprehension in the West lately. There has been much concern about the potential consequences of Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons. There has been concern about the security of Israel, especially after the rise to power of conservative politicians in Iran, who have made clear their disdain for Israel. In addition, the fear of nuclear proliferation in the Middle East has been much touted. The Middle East is unstable at this moment in time as a result of a range of socio-economic and political factors; this has raised the dilemma of a nuclear Iran acting as a catalyst of further regional instability by stimulating the nuclearisation of neighbouring states. This article aims to explore the plausibility of the notion that Iran “going nuclear” would set in motion a process of frantic acquisition of nuclear weapons by the surrounding states. The key Muslim states in the region at this moment in time are Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Turkey. These countries will be analysed in order to explore whether a nuclear Iran would lead to attempts by these countries to acquire nuclear weapons. Iraq will not be included as it is in no state to attempt anything at the moment in time due to internal security problems and Libya will not be analysed due to its abandonment of its nuclear programme in 2003 and subsequent rapprochement with the West.

Egypt

There has been general anxiety in Egypt about Israel’s nuclear programme and its impact upon stability in the Middle East since the sixties. In the era of Gamal Abdul Nasser Egypt took some tentative steps to acquire nuclear weapons, but his moves were obstructed by Russia and China. The sixties were a period of heightened Israeli-Arab tensions, resulting in the Arab military defeat in 1967. Rather than spurring the desire to acquire nuclear weapons, this defeat in fact led to the conviction that a nuclear Middle East would cause further instability and impact adversely on Egypt’s quest for regional leadership. Since the 1970s, Egypt has consistently advocated that the region become a Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone and has even sought to enhance its leadership role by promoting this agenda.

It is true that a nuclear Iran could change Egyptian attitudes towards acquiring nuclear weapons, but there would still be major constraints that Egypt would have to overcome. In relation to developing its own military nuclear capability, there are clear technological and economic hurdles that Egypt would have to overcome in order to achieve this. The intent of this article is not to examine the economic and technological capacity of Egypt in depth but it is reasonable to assume that if Egypt were to make the political decision to go nuclear, that these issues would need to be assessed and at this moment in time Egypt lacks the industrial capacity to produce nuclear weapons, a major hurdle to any such aspirations. In addition to this hurdle Egypt would face external constraints. There is no doubt that Egypt would have to take into account its relationship with the U.S., which Hosni Mubarak has most recently described as “strategic and strong.” Egypt becoming a suspected nuclear actor would seriously jeopardize the country’s relations with the U.S., and this would be a very high price to pay, especially as Egypt is one of the largest recipients of economic and military aid from the US .

In addition, the US has been a strong supporter of the Mubarak regime and any inclination towards nuclear acquirement could lead to suspension of this support and the encouragement of political change in Egypt – clearly detrimental to the monopoly of power Mubarak and his acolytes enjoy in Egypt. It is also important to bear in mind that Egypt going nuclear would upset relations with Israel which have been relatively stable since the Camp David Accords of 1978. Therefore it seems that Egypt does not have the capacity or inclination to produce nuclear weapons at this moment in time. Even if the government contemplated the acquisition of nuclear materials, the inevitable damage to relations with the US would act as a major disincentive.

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