Egypt, Russia and the Nuclear Middle East

Marc Lynch gave a comic roundup of yesterday’s Middle East nuclear energy news (the U.S. and Bahrain signed an MoU, and the UAE announced the start of their partnership with France) before wondering, “Seriously, does anyone else find the GCC’s rush to acquire ‘peaceful nuclear energy programs’ and the West’s seeming enthusiasm for the prospect a bit odd?” The long answer is here, a WPR article by yours truly on France’s nuclear diplomacy in the Muslim world, which I think gives a good summary of why, despite some basic security concerns, there’s no real need for alarm just yet.

But the short answer to is, Dude, you missed one. Because Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak was just in Moscow yesterday to sign, among other things, an agreement opening the way for Russia to offer bids on the soon-to-be-announced tender for Egypt’s first reactor. And unlike Bahrain and the UAE, that’s a pretty big big fish to go nuclear in the Middle Eastern pond. There are also tactical and strategic issues raised by Egypt’s flirtation with Russia, such as whether it’s simply a way to raise the nuclear contract bids by adding competition, or whether it represents the beginning of an effort by Egypt to add some variety to its vital economic and weapons partnerships.

But as far as a nuclear Middle East goes, and in the context of Iran’s nuclear program, Egypt is one of the countries people have been watching most closely, along with Saudi Arabia and Turkey. The red letter question, of course, is how these three would respond to an Iranian nuclear weapons capacity. (This Congressional committee report, via Arms Control Wonk, offers some essential reading on the subject.) But even an Iranian civil nuclear capacity puts pressure on a country like Egypt, which for a variety of historical and strategic reasons considers itself the natural leader of the Arab world.

In some ways that boils down to Lynch’s tongue-in-cheek reduction of whose nuclear program will be “. . .taller, shinier and more expensive.” But in the Middle East, tall, shiny and expensive are all pretty compelling.