With Egypt in revolt and the country’s future uncertain, concern is growing over whether a new government in the Arab world’s most militarily and industrially advanced country could accelerate an arms race in one of the world’s most volatile regions.
At the heart of the concern is intelligence indicating that Egypt has quietly carried out research and development on weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear, chemical, biological and missile technology.
The research and development has continued virtually without pause over the past three decades, according to interviews with U.S. officials and a review of intelligence and other government documents by NBC News.
Specifically, the intelligence indicates that Egypt has carried out experiments in plutonium reprocessing and uranium enrichment, helped jump-start Saddam Hussein’s missile and chemical weapons programs in Iraq, and worked with Kim il-Jung on North Korea’s missile program.
“If we found another country doing what they’ve done, we would have been all over them,” said a former U.S. intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The reason the U.S. didn’t move, officials say, was Egypt’s role as a staunch U.S. ally and stabilizing force in the Middle East and later as a key player in U.S. counterterrorism efforts.
If Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is forced to step down, new leadership in Cairo could mean a radical change in that relationship, analysts say.
Withdraw from nuke treaty?
In fact, at least one nuclear proliferation analyst believes that a shift may already be under way in Egyptian policy and that the U.S. may have to deal with Cairo withdrawing from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which it signed and ratified in 1968.
“They hint that if something isn’t done about Israel’s nuclear weapons program or Iran’s nuclear ambitions, they may be prepared to leave the (treaty),” said David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security and a former inspector with the International Atomic Energy Agency.
The Egyptians have pushed for a U.N. conference next year on weapons of mass destruction, or WMD, in the Middle East, and would like to see constraints placed on Israeli and Iranian arms programs.
But “these requirements are hard to meet,” Albright said. “(The conference) may not end well, and that could be a catalyst for them to leave the (Non-Proliferation Treaty).”
So far, the international community has not made the conference a priority. Seven months after the agreement to hold the conference, the U.N. has yet to establish a venue, an agenda or a facilitator to organize it.
If Egypt was to withdraw from the treaty, there would be no restraints on its development of nuclear technology, whether for energy or for weapons.
And Cairo already has given indications that it may harbor nuclear ambitions, according to analysts inside and outside the U.S. government.
The International Atomic Energy Agency criticized Egypt in February 2005 for failing to report a variety of nuclear experiments over 20 or more years.
The agency noted the Egypt had used “small amounts” of nuclear material to conduct experiments related to producing plutonium and enriched uranium, both of which can be used to make nuclear weapons. (The agency was then led by Mohamed ElBaradei, now an opposition figure and potential candidate to become at least an interim leader of a post-Mubarak government.)
Uranium, plutonium experiments
While the plutonium experiments appear to have taken place at least 20 years ago, the uranium experiments were more recent.
According to the IAEA report, Egypt used its two research reactors at Inshas in the Nile Delta between 1990 and 2003 to irradiate “small amounts of natural uranium,” conducting a total of 16 experiments.
According to the IAEA, none of the experiments fully succeeded, but in each case, Egypt failed to report them to the agency as required by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act.
Egypt eventually acknowledged that it had not fully disclosed the extent of its nuclear facilities, failed to declare the pilot plant used for the plutonium and uranium-separation experiments and did not provide design information for a new facility under construction, also at Inshas.
The IAEA declared the lapses a “matter of concern” but stopped short of accusing Egypt of having a clandestine nuclear weapons program.
In a statement responding to the IAEA, Egypt played down the violations, claiming that “differing interpretations” of its obligations under the treaty had led to the problems.
But Albright said the experiments triggered concerns that Egypt was interested in the nuclear fuel cycle — the full development of fuel that can be used to power reactors or build bombs.
“For 15 years, they have made credible moves to build up their nuclear fuel cycle capability,” he said.
Egypt has admitted that it pursued nuclear weapons in the 1960s as it first learned about Israel’s nuclear program, which by 1966 had produced its first atomic bombs. At that point, at least some of those weapons would have targeted Egyptian cities.
Mubarak on the record
And Mubarak himself has occasionally raised the possibility of a nuclear Egypt.
In an October 1998 interview, Mubarak said that Egypt could, if need be, develop nuclear weapons or buy the technology.
"If the time comes when we need nuclear weapons, then we will not hesitate,” he told London’s al-Hayat newspaper. "… Acquiring material for nuclear weapons has become very easy, and it can be bought."
As always, he then dismissed the idea.
“I say, ‘if we have to,’ because this is the last thing we think about," he told al-Hayat. "We do not think now of joining the nuclear club.”
The U.S. now believes that Mubarak’s reference to being able to buy nuclear technology was not just an off-hand remark.
The statement appears to coincide with a secret offer by Pakistan’s A.Q. Khan to help Egypt develop nuclear arms, an offer that was rejected by Cairo, say U.S. intelligence officials.
Despite these such hints, some observers do not believe that a new government would risk withdrawing from the non-proliferation treaty and moving to develop nuclear weapons.
James Russell, a nuclear non-proliferation expert at the Naval Post-Graduate School in Monterey, Calif., and a former Pentagon official, thinks re-entering the nuclear race would be politically risky and economically unwise.
He noted that the Egyptian government abandoned its nuclear ambitions after the 1967 war with Israel because of the cost and the lack of scientific expertise.
'We don't know'
The question is, would a follow-on regime want to revisit this?” he said. “Would it look at the set of calculations and pursue not a peaceful program but consider constructing an illicit program? The answer is that we don’t know, but we do have an idea of what the costs of doing that would be … and the prospect that they’d have a pretty damn difficult time trying to hide it.
“I have a hard time seeing the costs (for) mounting such a program. The calculus argues for not doing this ... even for an Islamic regime,” he added.
But as Russell and others note, the Egyptians “don’t have a clean record” in other areas of arms proliferation. And if the Egyptians lost part or all of their U.S. military aid, they could be expected to try to make up those losses by developing and exporting more weapons technology.
A revealing example of that occurred when Egypt helped Iraq develop its chemical weapons capability before the Gulf War.
A CIA report in 2005 indicated that the Egyptian arms industry was sophisticated enough to permit Egypt to help Iraq make “technological leaps” in the 1980s, as Arab Iraq was battling Persian Iran.
The 350,000-word report, little noticed until the Associated Press wrote of it in March 2005, stated that in 1981, after the outbreak of war with Iran, the Iraqi government paid Egypt $12 million "in return for assistance with production and storage of chemical weapons agents."
It said the assistance included making modifications to rocket systems to permit the warheads to store and disperse chemical agents and helping Saddam’s scientists develop sarin munitions.
The sarin development is the best indicator of the Egyptian chemical weapons capabilities, say military experts. Sarin is a nerve agent, one of the more advanced military chemicals in the world.
A lesson from assistance to Iraq
Before the mid-1980s, Iraq was limited to mustard gas and other disfiguring agents. But not long after the Egyptian scientists arrived, Iraqi sarin production soared — from 5 tons in 1984 to 209 tons in 1987 and 394 tons in 1988, the report says. During that period, sarin was used extensively by Iraq to kill Kurdish dissidents in the north as well as Iranian soldiers in the south.
The Egyptians also were critical to the development of an Iraqi missile program, Begun during the Iran-Iraq War in the mid-1980s.
With financing from Iraq, Egypt set up a secret $750 million missile development project in the foothills of the Andes, just south of Cordoba, Argentina. Called the Condor-II, it was an advanced, mobile, two-stage, solid-fuel ballistic missile that could carry a half-ton warhead more than 600 miles.
By 1985, it was well along in development and the centerpiece of an international consortium run by Egypt’s Ministry of Defense. U.S. pressure on Argentina and Egypt stopped the project, say U.S. intelligence officials.
And that is not the only example of Egypt working with a rogue state.
Also in the mid-1980s, Egypt secretly cooperated with North Korea to improve both countries’ missile arsenals.
Egypt's shipped at least two of its Soviet-supplied Scuds to North Korea for reverse-engineering. In return, Pyongyang agreed to help Cairo build Scuds on its own. North Korea provided technical documents, drawings and extensive access to North Korea's own Scud production program.
The cooperation led to North Korea’s development of its Nodong and Taepo-dong missiles. The former was later sent to Pakistan in exchange for nuclear technology, and deployment of the latter led the U.S. to install its “Star Wars” anti-missile system in Alaska, U.S. intelligence officials said.
It is this backdrop — and the fact that Egypt still has considerable expertise in missiles and chemical weapons — that has some analysts concerned about the path that a new Egyptian government might take.
If an Islamic-dominated government emerges in the wake of Mubarak’s departure, “then all bets are off” as far as pursuit of WMDs, said Russell, the former Pentagon official. That also would be true of Egyptian-Israeli relations, he said.
If the military retains power and installs another one of its own as leader, the analysts said, the issue will be to what extent Egypt’s relationship with the U.S. is damaged by the Obama administration’s efforts to exert its influence in the crisis.
The only outcome that would entirely calm concerns about Egypt’s WMD ambitions would be if ElBaradei emerged as a central figure in a successor government, they said. He is, after all, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate because of his efforts to stop nuclear proliferation.
New sense of nationalism expected
But no matter the outcome, Egypt is likely to become “newly sovereign,” or more nationalistic, in the post-Mubarak era, the analysts said.
Egypt would face great costs — including loss of U.S. aid and the ability to buy U.S. military equipment — if it became too open in its dealings with rogue states, or if it pressed hard on a nuclear agenda, notes Judith Yaphe, a 20-year veteran of the CIA who is now senior research fellow and Middle East project director at the National Defense University.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean that a new government might not decide that perilous times call for high-risk actions.
“Will it change? Who knows?” she said. “The Egyptian military has important things it has to protect. It would like to protect its relationship with the United States. … Those close ties are something they value. They value highly the training, the weaponry.
“Still, we shouldn’t be terribly surprised they are playing with things. Israel is still there, and the Iranians have ambitions. Call it the ‘Iran Effect,’ if you want. Everyone else has given up on the Egyptians as great leaders, but the Egyptians haven’t.”