CAIRO — The specter of a U.S. nuclear umbrella for the Middle East haunted the U.S.- Egyptian summit this week. In the run-up to President Hosni Mubarak’s first Washington visit in five years, both the Egyptian leader and his senior aides categorically rejected an undeclared U.S. offer to guarantee defense of the region against atomic weapons as part of a comprehensive Middle East peace plan.
A nuclear umbrella is usually used for the security alliances of the United States with non-nuclear states such as Japan, South Korea, much of Europe, Turkey, Canada, and Australia, originating with the Cold War with the then Soviet Union. For some countries it was an alternative to acquiring nuclear weapons themselves.
According to knowledgeable sources, the Egyptian President insisted with President Barack Obama on Aug. 18 that "what the Middle East needs is peace, security, stability and development," not nuclear weapons.
In doing so, Mubarak reaffirmed Egypt’s pledge underlying the country’s commitment since 1974 for the establishment of a "nuclear-free Middle East."
Pre-empting discussion on the issue, Mubarak said in an exclusive interview with the leading Egyptian daily Al-Ahram on Aug. 17 that "Egypt will not be part of any American nuclear umbrella intended to protect the Gulf countries."
Such an umbrella, he said, "would imply accepting foreign troops and experts on our land — and we do not accept that." Mubarak also emphasized that a U.S. nuclear umbrella "would imply an implicit acceptance that there is a regional nuclear power — we do not accept that either."
The Egyptian president asserted that "the Middle East does not need any nuclear powers, be they Iran or Israel — what we need is peace, security, stability and development." In any case, "we have not received any official communication regarding such a proposal," he added.
On the same day, Suleiman Awad, spokesperson of the Egyptian Presidency, also commented on a U.S. nuclear umbrella in the region. "This is not the first time the issue is raised; it is part of the U.S. defense policy," the presidential spokesperson said. "What is new is that it is raised now for the Middle East."
At the height of the Sino-Indian war that coincided closely with the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962, the U.S. Administration under president John F. Kennedy made an informal offer of a nuclear umbrella to India at a time when the country felt constrained to seek U.S. military support to defend itself against China.
Commenting on alleged U.S. nuclear plans in the Middle East now, Awad said: "It is absolutely rejectable both in form and content. Instead of talking about a nuclear umbrella, the Iranian nuclear file should be dealt with (in a spirit of) dialogue and flexibility from both sides — the West, and Iran."
He added: "Iran has the right to benefit from the peaceful uses of nuclear energy, like any other country signatory of the NPT (Non-Proliferation Treaty), provided that it proves that its program is for peaceful uses."
Mubarak’s spokesperson then underlined: "At the same time, this must be accompanied, simultaneously, by a serious move vis-à-vis Israel’s nuclear capacity, in order to avoid accusations of double standards."
These remarks are in continuity with Egypt’s 35-year-long campaign aiming at the establishment of a "nuclear free Middle East." In 1990, Mubarak revitalized the Egyptian initiative through a new, larger plan to declare the Middle East a "weapons of mass destruction-free region," including nuclear weapons.
The Egyptian initiative has drawn support from most Arab countries and has been recently reaffirmed by Amr Musa, Secretary General of the League of Arab States, representing all the 22 Arab countries.
Musa declared on Jul. 5: "It is a must to free the Middle East of nuclear weapons."
Arab support for the "nuclear-free Middle East" initiative has gathered added strength particularly in the Gulf Arab countries in the wake of the U.S., Israel, and Europe alleging that Iran intends to build nuclear weapons.
Iran has systematically refuted these allegations, assuring that its nuclear program is meant for peaceful use and nuclear power generation. The U.S., Israel and Europe are adamant that they will not allow Iran to develop nuclear weapons.
This avowal contrasts with the positions of Russia and China, who do not want a nuclear armed Iran but opt for other ways to prevent this from happening. The Arabs also have more doubts than certainty about Iran’s alleged intentions to development nuclear weapons.
The Western view has been implicitly challenged by the new Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Yukiya Amano of Japan. He told reporters Jul. 3 after his appointment that he did not see "any hard evidence of Iran trying to gain the capability to develop nuclear arms."
Asked by Reuters’ Sylvia Westall whether he believed Iran was seeking nuclear weapons capability, Amano, veteran diplomat and senior non-proliferation expert, said: "I don’t see any evidence in IAEA official documents about this."
Two days later, in an exclusive interview with Kuwait daily Al-Anba’ on Jul. 5, the secretary general of the League of Arab States was asked whether Iran represented a "real threat" to the region. "There is no documented evidence (that proves) the existence of an Iranian military nuclear program," Musa replied.
"There is only one state (in the Middle East) that has nuclear weapons, and it is Israel," the Arab League’s chief stressed.
Although it started developing nuclear weapons in the mid-sixties, Israel’s successive governments have systematically refused to deny or confirm the possession of a nuclear arsenal.
Nevertheless, the Stockholm International Peace Institute (SIPRI) ranks Israel as the sixth world nuclear power on the basis of the number of deployed nuclear warheads in January 2009.
According to SIPRI figures, Israel is second only to the bloc of the five UN Security Council permanent members (U.S., Russia, UK, France, China), with more deployed warheads (80) than India (60-70) and Pakistan (60).
North Korea is believed to have produced enough plutonium to build a small number of nuclear warheads, although it is unclear whether it has manufactured an operational weapon, says SIPRI.
Unlike the U.S., Russia, UK, France and China, Israel is not a signatory to the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
However Israel is one of eight states which, as of January this year, possessed between them a total of more than 23,300 nuclear weapons, including operational warheads, spares, those in both active and inactive storage, and intact warheads scheduled for dismantlement, according to SIPRI.
"India and Pakistan, which along with Israel are de facto nuclear weapon states outside the NPT, continue to develop new missile systems capable of delivering nuclear weapons and are also expanding their capacities to produce fissile material," SIPRI reports.
The SIPRI numbers have been questioned, however. For example, former U.S. president Jimmy Carter recently declared: "Israel has 150 nuclear warheads, or more."
Prestigious Egyptian journalist, writer and political analyst Mohamed Hassanein Heykal, who served as a close advisor to late Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat, says that Israel has 200 nuclear warheads.
The U.S. based Arms Control Association (ACA), which was founded in 1971 as a non-partisan organization dedicated to promoting public understanding of and support for effective arms control policies, estimates that Israel posses between 75 to 200 nuclear warheads.
Egyptian army intelligence sources estimate the number of Israeli nuclear warheads as ranging between 230 and 250.
Israel has never denied any of these reports and figures.
The Arab-backed Egyptian initiative is based on the fact that the sole nuclear threat in the Middle East is Israel.
A top Egyptian diplomatic source, who asked not to be named, told this reporter that Egyptian officials have always argued that the U.S. "lacks any legitimacy to demand Iran, which has not developed any nuclear weapon, halt its nuclear program, while treating the only proved nuclear power in the region with silky hands."
The source said "this argument was put on the table" by Mubarak during his meeting with Obama. "Egypt has always stated that had the U.S. pressed Israel to dismantle its nuclear weapons, it would have been now in a strong and legitimate position to stop any potential Iranian nuclear aspirations," the source said.
The source recalled Arab League secretary general Musa’s recent statement that "it is a must to free the Middle East of nuclear weapons — the existence of Israeli nuclear weapons violates the non-proliferation principle and encourages others to have nuclear programs."
Hessam Zaki, spokesperson of the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said earlier this month in a public statement that "Egypt has seized every possible opportunity to discuss, at all levels and in all meetings, that the Middle East should be declared a nuclear-free region."
Egyptian officials point out that the U.S.-Egyptian summit has taken place at a point in time that seems appropriate to discuss nuclear disarmament. Obama promised in Prague last April to work for a world free of nuclear weapons.
On Jul. 6, the U.S. President signed an understanding with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in Moscow aimed at reducing a part of their stockpiles of nuclear weapons within seven years.
The Moscow understanding, which includes intercontinental ballistic missiles and submarine-launched missiles is supposed to replace the 1991 Start I (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty I), which expires in December this year.
The White House meeting came also in the middle of a worldwide campaign to reduce nuclear arms as a critical step towards their total abolition, which Japan, the sole country that suffered the consequences of U.S. nuclear bombs in World War II, has been actively promoting.
The appointment of an anti-nuclear Japanese to lead the IAEA is expected to add to Japanese civil society efforts for a world free of nuclear weapons.
The 12 million members of non-governmental organization Soka Gakkai International (SGI) in 192 countries have embarked on a broad-based campaign for nuclear abolition. ‘The People’s Decade for Nuclear Abolition’ initiative created by SGI aims to rouse public opinion and help create a global grassroots network of people dedicated to abolishing nuclear weapons.
According to SGI president Daisaku Ikeda, "nuclear weapons embody an absolute evil that threatens humankind’s right to live."
Another major world campaign for nuclear weapons reductions towards nuclear abolition, called Global Zero, was launched in Paris in December last year by 100 political, military, business, faith and civic leaders cutting across political lines.
Their purpose is to shore up the two major nuclear powers in their declared intention to achieve a comprehensive agreement to eliminate all nuclear weapons worldwide through phased and verified reductions.
Global Zero is developing a step-by-step policy plan for the phased elimination of nuclear weapons, and is committed to building broad-based public support through worldwide media and online communications and civil society organizations.
The initiative’s signatories have announced that they will convene a Global Zero World Summit bringing together hundreds of leaders in early 2010, for abolition of what Global Zero campaigner Queen Nour of Jordan calls "the nuclear folly."
(Inter Press Service)