Egypt has seen two major upheavals in the last four years - the Arab Spring overthrew Hosni Mubarak in 2011, then saw its Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated president toppled in a coup d’état by General, now President, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
President Sisi last week concluded a preliminary agreement with Russia to build a new nuclear reactor for the country. Simultaneously, Egypt’s courts issued injunctions declaring Hamas a terrorist organization. Both developments may have a great impact on Israel’s security.
Zack Gold of the Institute for National Security Studies, currently in Egypt, told Arutz Sheva he does not see this as reason to think Egypt is pursuing a nuclear weapons capability to keep up with Iran, particularly in the context of what some experts, and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, worry will provoke a nuclear arms race in the region.
“The Egyptian reactor is a concept that has been in the works for years," explained Gold. "This is just the initial stage of the project. It is not in any way related to the current negotiations with Iran. It is about Egypt’s need for energy. Egypt does not have enough gas. They want to diversify their energy market.”
"In fact, Egypt has always been a regional leader promoting a nuclear-free Middle East. Since 2006, Egypt has pushed as a way to deal with the Iranian program," he added.
When asked about the possibility that the reactor could be a point of tension with Israel, long speculated to have nuclear weapons of its own and not a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), he said that, counterintuitively, Israel’s issue with the idea has never been about having to join a diplomatic dialogue for joining that sort of agreement.
"Israel is not exactly against a nuclear weapons-free zone being applied to the Middle East. Israel has just maintained that any regional discussions shouldn’t be restricted to nukes. It has to cover chemical and biological weapons, too, like in Syria.”
"Israel also did not want such a conference to become a forum to criticize Israel on other unrelated issues," Gold added.
He recalled that "in 2010 at that year’s NPT Review Conference, Egypt refused to sign on to a concluding document to the conference without a guarantee for a conference to focus on a nuclear-free Mideast. It was supposed to take place in 2013, but obviously that didn’t happen.”
In context of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s concern over nuclear proliferation expressed in his Congressional speech, would Iran’s program provide more of an indirect threat than a direct one?
Gold responded that "some say the Iranian nuclear program is not a threat in its own right, but that it could break the NPT. Egypt and Turkey might pursue a weapons program out of prestige; Saudi Arabia out of concern for an existential threat. But there is a chance Saudi Arabia might immediately buy one from Pakistan. But Egypt is not in a financial position to withstand the sanctions for pursuing a bomb.”
Russia looking for influence
Still Gold does say there are definitely political implications connected to the Iran deal, but they have much more to do with Russia than Egypt.
"Russia wants to stick its thumb at the US and Europe who have imposed sanctions on Moscow over Ukraine. Russia wants to show it is still useful and an international player," he said.
“When we think of Russia and nuclear power in the Middle East, we think of the Bushehr reactor in Iran. This (Egyptian reactor) could help with Iran because Russia would not rely only on Iran’s nuclear reactor for a source of influence in the Middle East. Russia is looking for alternative alliances.”
Egypt does gain politically a bit from the deal, showing they are not solely reliant on the US as a foreign ally, but the days of the Cold War when Egypt would choose sides are not applicable to Egypt right now, he says.
“Egypt wants the US to know it has other partners. Egypt does not want to be taken for granted," he concluded.