Friday, September 29, 2006

Nuclear succession

Egypt and nuclear power | Nuclear succession |

Gamal Mubarak pronouncement on nuclear energy had two ramifications: it emphasized his central place in Egyptian politics. Most Egyptians presume that he will succeed his father. There is no mystery about that. The mystery is how it will be done and Egyptians enjoy speculating on how he will be maneuvered into the presidency.
Equally important, he put his finger on several aspects of the nuclear proliferation question. Not only are regional states concerned that Iran is seeking to throw even more weight around, but they also see the U.S. position as completely one-sided. Why is the Israeli arsenal not even discussed. While it is political poison to talk about such things in Washington, there is merit to the idea of a nuclear free zone in the Middle East, even if only a goal for the present. To talk about that topic Israeli nukes cannot be hidden ina closet someplace as though they don't exist. One of the leading non-proliferation advocates once wrote me that Israel's nuclear capabilities were not an important factor in states like Iran seeking nuclear weapons, which not only illustrates how detached one can be from reality but the fundamental bias that resides in the U.S. stance.

Egypt is not alone in starting to think nuclear. Earlier this year, Turkey announced plans to build three nuclear power plants by 2015. Morocco and even impoverished Yemen also say they are interested. In an oil-drenched region, all these countries are united by the relative scarcity of their energy reserves.

This is not so with Iran, which is far ahead in the nuclear game. With similar populations, Egypt and Turkey are Iran's historic rivals in the region. However sound the economic reasoning behind nuclear energy, their sudden interest in getting it is also prompted by fear and envy.

The fear, which countries such as Egypt share with Western allies, is that if Iran (which has been deemed in “non-compliance” with nuclear safeguards required under the NPT) develops nuclear weapons as well as power, it will start to throw its weight around. The envy is of the fact that Iran's controversial programme has made its regime more popular domestically, and brought it a certain respect, if only grudging, abroad. Thus a would-be-leader, such as Gamal Mubarak, gladly seizes on the issue to polish his nationalist credentials.

But Egypt's initiative was meant to send a message in another direction, too. Like other Arab states, it has grown impatient over the West's perceived double standards regarding Israel's monopoly of nuclear weapons in the region.

At a little-reported session of the International Atomic Energy Agency last week, America and its allies joined together to block an Arab-Iranian resolution calling for Israel to join the NPT, and for the Middle East to be declared a nuclear-free zone. Egypt's foreign minister, Ahmed Abul Gheit, riposted: “For developing and Arab countries to comprehend the concern Western powers express over the Iranian nuclear issue, these Western powers have to convince everyone that they adhere to all that is lawful, and not pick sides.

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