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As Obama dithers, Egypt ramps up its nuclear options

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After the fatally-flawed interim deal signed by the P5+1 in Geneva November 24 over Iran’s nuclear program, America’s slighted ally Egypt is now possibly pursuing its own nuclear option, amid fears of an atomic arms race between Tehran and its regional Sunni rivals in Cairo, Riyadh and beyond.

And no one seems to be paying attention.

Egypt’s traditionally close relations with the U.S. have been severely strained since Minister of Defense General Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi ousted the narrowly-elected President Mohamed Morsi after more than thirty million marched against him and the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), to which he belongs.

To the outrage of most Egyptians, the U.S. cut roughly a third in cash and equipment of its annual $1.6 billion of mainly military aid to Cairo in early October in punishment for the new regime’s crackdown on the MB, which demands the return of Morsi — and which Egypt now correctly classifies as a terrorist organization.

Yet the White House had boosted aid to Egypt even as Morsi grew more and more repressive, imposing his Islamist agenda on the country.

On October 6, Egypt’s interim president, Adly Mansour, announced at the annual commemoration of Egypt’s successful 1973 surprise attack on the Israelis across the Suez Canal that construction of a 1,000 MW light-water reactor to generate electricity at El-Debaa, 120 kilometers west of Alexandria — the first of four planned in the country — would go ahead.

Egypt’s 60-year-old nuclear program is already the third largest in the region, after those of Israel and Iran.
On November 26, the respected Middle East news site Al-Monitor reported that Egypt expects to generate $4 billion in grants from interested international companies to finance the project.

Morsi, whom al-Sisi appointed Mansour to replace pending new elections next year, had earlier approved a similar plan, even obtaining a pledge of Russian “research assistance” for Egypt’s nuclear expansion, as well as help in exploiting the nation’s previously unknown major deposits of uranium.

In mid-November, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Defense Minister Sergei Shoygu visited Egypt, where they negotiated a deal through which Egypt will buy $2 billion worth of Russian military equipment.

“We want to give a new impetus to our relations and return them to the same high level that used to exist with the Soviet Union”—i.e., during the Cold War–Egypt’s Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmi is quoted as saying.

On November 11, the destroyer Varyag docked with an official welcome at Alexandria, the first Russian warship to visit one of Egypt’s ports in decades.

It is not known if the Russians and their hosts also discussed Egypt’s nuclear program in those talks.

Morsi — whom the Iranians too had offered to help develop his nuclear program, and with whom he worked to have closer ties after three decades of frozen relations–was most likely interested in acquiring nuclear weapons, for which the MB has called since 2006.

That idea is still wildly popular in Egypt, even if the MB no longer is.

Yet unlike Iran, a major oil exporter, Egypt really does have an urgent, legitimate need to develop new sources of energy.

Rolling brownouts and blackouts have been increasingly common, especially in post-Mubarak Egypt.

But as al-Sisi and Obama drift further apart, there are good reasons to be aware, if not wary, of Egypt’s push for nuclear power.

Egypt’s nuclear program, which began in 1954, features two research reactors and a hot-cell laboratory, all located at Inshas in the Delta.

From the reactors’ spent fuel rods, the hot-cell laboratory reportedly extracts at least six kilograms of plutonium — enough for one nuclear bomb — per year.

During the rule of Hosni Mubarak — overthrown in February 2011 in a U.S.-backed coup propelled by public protests–the International Agency for Atomic Energy (IAEA) in 2004 opened an investigation into irradiation experiments and the unreported import of nuclear materials, and in 2007 and 2008 found traces of Highly-Enriched Uranium (HEU), all at Inshas.

After each, the IAEA issued brief, bland reports, but the last case is apparently still open, while similar traces of HEU found in facilities in Iran provided the first clue that Pakistan had been aiding Tehran’s own drive for the bomb.

Mubarak also called for a Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone (WMDFZ) in the Middle East–now a movement, co-led by Iran, obviously aimed at freeing Israel of its most effective last-ditch defenses.

Yet, although Egypt signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1968, it has refused to sign the NPT’s Additional Protocol, which permits spot inspections, as well as treaties banning the possession of chemical and biological weapons.

Al-Sisi shares Mubarak’s antipathy for the ayatollahs, and rightly fears their growing rapprochement with a gullible U.S. eager to create a new alignment in the Middle East, at the expense of traditional Sunni allies.

That means not only Egypt but Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), who ultimately felt threatened by the MB in Egypt (the UAE is now prosecuting about thirty MB members accused of plotting subversion), which the Obama administration continues to stand by instead, despite the group’s anti-Western ideology and actions.

There is now enormous support on the street for Egypt to shift its alliance away from the U.S., particularly toward Russia, especially after President Vladimir Putin’s masterful diplomatic deflection of America’s pusillanimous threat of a military strike against Moscow’s Syrian client last fall.

The rift is not yet complete- — though there still is no clear sign that the Obama administration will either fully accept the loss of Morsi, or actually stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and the means of delivering them.

Whatever Iran chooses to do when it finally gets the bomb, its very proximity to having these ultimate weapons could impel its neighbors to seek their own deterrent.

Sadly, no deterrent nor strategy of containment can control the dynamics of this most unstable region should Iran achieve its ultimate nuclear ambitions.

And a nuclear arms race between the Sunni states and Iran — also, in the end, aimed at Israel — would be even worse.

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Middle East

US-Iran Tension: Avert any big disaster to humanity

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US-Iran tension is growing to a dangerous level. Irrespective of who is right and who is wrong, but everyone agrees that it is leading toward a big disaster. Human life and natural resources are at stake. Irrespective, who will suffer more and who will suffer less, but it is human life, which is the most precious thing in this world, is at stake.

Middle-East is an oil and gas-rich area and meets the major portion of world energy demand. Any disturbance in this region will have a severe impact on the global economy. Whether one is right or wrong, will be the victim of this crisis directly or indirectly.

This war will be not like the Iraq war or the Libya War. As at that time, there was only one superpower and the world was unipolar. There was no resistance from any corner of the world. US and allies, without any resistance, conducted the war and achieved their desired results. But a lot of resistance was witnessed in case of Syrian War. The whole scenario has been changed, the calculated results were not achieved yet. Finally, the US has decided to pull back its troops. Similarly, Afghanistan case is not ideal, after spending trillion dollars, and fighting for 17 years, not gains on the ground and finally has to pull back.

It may not be limited to only US-Iran but may engulf the whole region. As traditional rivals are waiting for an appropriate opportunity to settle their old disputes. Whether, it is Arab-Iran, or Israel-Iran, or Arab-Israel enmity, may it spread to a much wider sphere than expected. It is in control of a few countries to start or refrain the escalation, but once it has been broken, it may be beyond the control of either country.

Especially, Russia and China are not sleeping at this time. They are in a strong position to offer resistance. It should not be taken an easy task like Iraq or Libya war. It is difficult to predict the exact reaction of Russia or China, but anticipated resistance.

If we expect, US or Iran to avert this foreseeable war will be not a realistic approach. As if they were to avoid any disaster, they should not have created so hype and should not have moved to this stage. They may not accept total hegemony of the US in this part of the world. They have heavy stakes in the middle-East and cannot be spectators only.

Geopolitics has been changed, regional alliances have emerged, and nations have re-aligned themselves. Much more complex changes have been witnessed after the war on terror. Public awareness has been enhanced, maybe some of the governments in this region have a different outlook, but public opinion is much more realistic and may play a vital role in the days to come. Old time’s friends may stand on the other side of the table. Some radical changes may be visible on grounds.

UN role was ineffective in the past and a little is expected in the future. In fact, the UN has been hijacked and curtailed to a very limited role practically. While one of its major mandates was to resolve the disputes among nations and avoid wars or war-like situations.

Under this serious scenario, there is a hope that all peace-loving nations and individuals, may peruse the UN and International Community do something to avert this bid human disaster.  We all share one world, we have the responsibility to save this world. Any loss of human life in any part of the world is considered the loss to the whole of humanity. And the destruction of natural resources may be considered a loss to humanity. Any damage to Environment or ecology or biodiversity may be a net loss to humanity. We all are son and daughter of ADAM and share a common world, common environment, common resources. We need to protect humanity, environment and natural resources.

It is strongly appealed to the UN, International Community and all individuals who believe in Peace, must act, and must act now, and must act strongly, to avert any bid disaster to humanity.

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Chinese purchases of Iranian oil raise tantalizing questions

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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A fully loaded Chinese oil tanker ploughing its way eastwards from two Iranian oil terminals raises questions of how far Beijing is willing to go in defying US sanctions amid a mounting US military build-up in the Gulf and a US-China trade war.

The sailing from Iran of the Pacific Bravo takes on added significance with US strategy likely to remain focused on economic rather than military strangulation of the Iranian leadership, despite the deployment to the Gulf of an aircraft carrier strike group as well as B-52 bombers and a Patriot surface-to-air missile system.

As President Donald J. Trump, backed by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, appears to be signalling that he is not seeking military confrontation, his administration is reportedly considering a third round of sanctions that would focus on Iran’s petrochemical industry. The administration earlier this month sanctioned the country’s metals and minerals trade.

The sailing raises the question whether China is reversing its policy that led in the last quarter of 2018 to it dramatically reducing its trade with Iran, possibly in response to a recent breakdown in US-Chinese trade talks.

“The question is whether non-oil trade remains depressed even if some oil sales resume, which I think it will. That’s the better indicator of where Chinese risk appetite has changed. Unfortunately Iran‘s reprieve will be limited—but better than zero perhaps,” tweeted Esfandyar Batmanghelidj, head of Bourse & Bazaar, a self-described media and business diplomacy company and the founder of the Europe-Iran Forum.

A Chinese analyst interviewed by Al Jazeera argued that “China is not in a position to have Iran’s back… For China, its best to stay out” of the fray.

The stakes for China go beyond the troubled trade talks. In Canada, a senior executive of controversial Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei is fighting extradition to the United States on charges of violating US sanctions against Iran.

Reports that Western companies, including Kraft Heinz, Adidas and Gap, wittingly or unwittingly, were employing Turkic Muslims detained in re-education camps in China’s north-western province of Xinjiang, as part of opaque supply chains, could increase attention on a brutal crackdown that China is struggling to keep out of the limelight.

The Trump administration has repeatedly criticized the crackdown but has stopped short of sanctioning officials involved in the repressive measures.

Bourse & Bazaar’s disclosure of the sailing of the Pacific Bravo coincided with analysis showing that Iran was not among China’s top three investment targets in the Middle East even if Chinese investment in the region was on the rise.

The Pacific Bravo was steaming with its cargo officially toward Indonesia as Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was touring his country’s major oil clients, including China, in a bid to persuade them to ignore US sanctions.

A second tanker, the Marshal Z, was reported to have unloaded 130,000 tonnes of Iranian fuel oil into storage tanks near the Chinese city of Zhoushan.

The Marshall Z was one of four ships that, according to Reuters, allegedly helped Iran circumvent sanctions by using ship-to-ship transfers in January and forged documents that masked the cargoes as originating from Iraq.

The unloading put an end to a four-month odyssey at sea sparked by buyers’ reticence to touch a cargo that would put them in the US crosshairs.

“Somebody in China decided that the steep discount this cargo most likely availed … was a bargain too good to miss,” Matt Stanley, an oil broker at StarFuels in Dubai, told Reuters.

The Pacific Bravo, the first vessel to load Iranian oil since the Trump administration recently refused to extend sanction exemptions to eight countries, including China, was recently acquired by China’s Bank of Kunlun.

The acquisition and sailing suggested that Bank of Kunlun was reversing its decision last December to restrict its business with Iran to humanitarian trade, effectively excluding all other transactions.

The bank was the vehicle China used in the past for business with Iran because it had no exposure to the United States and as a result was not vulnerable to US sanctions that were in place prior to the 2015 international agreement that curbed Iran’s nuclear program.

China’s willingness to ignore, at least to some extent, US sanctions could also constitute an effort to persuade Iran to remain fully committed to the nuclear accord which it has so far upheld despite last year’s US withdrawal.

Iran recently warned Europe that it would reduce its compliance if Europe, which has struggled to create a credible vehicle that would allow non-US companies to circumvent the sanctions, failed to throw the Islamic republic an economic lifeline.

In a letter that was also sent to Russia and China, Iran said it was no longer committed to restrictions on the storage of enriched uranium and heavy water stocks, and could stop observing limits on uranium enrichment at a later stage.

Russian president Vladimir Putin warned in response to the Iranian threat that “as soon as Iran takes its first reciprocal steps and says that it is leaving, everyone will forget by tomorrow that the US was the initiator of this collapse. Iran will be held responsible, and the global public opinion will be intentionally changed in this direction.”

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The Iran Question

Dr. Arshad M. Khan

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Will there be war with Iran?  Will there not be war with Iran?  The questions are being asked repeatedly in the media even though a single carrier task force is steaming up there.  The expression is old for the latest carriers are nuclear powered.  Imagine the mess if it was blown up.

There are two kinds of weapons in the world … offensive and defensive.  The latter are cheaper, a fighter plane compared to a bomber.  If a country does not (or cannot afford to) have offensive intent, it makes sense to focus on defense.  It is what Iran has done.  Moreover, its missile centered defense has a modern deadly twist — the missiles are precision-guided. 

As an Iranian general remarked when questioned about the carrier task force:  some years ago it would’ve been a threat he opined; now it’s a target.  Iran also has a large standing army of 350,000 plus a 120,000 strong Revolutionary Guard and Soviet style air defenses.  In 2016 Russia started installation of the S-300 system.  It has all kinds of variants, the most advanced, the S-300 PMU-3 has a range similar to the S-400 if equipped with 40N6E missiles, which are used also in the S-400.  Their range is 400 km, so the Iranian batteries are virtually S-400s.  The wily Putin has kept trump satisfied with the S-300 moniker without short-changing his and China’s strategic ally.  The latter continuing to buy Iranian oil.

Iran has friends in Europe also.  Angela Merkel in particular has pointed out that Iran has complied fully with the nuclear provisions of the UN Security Council backed Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action i.e. the Iran nuclear deal.  She is mustering the major European powers.  Already alienated with Trump treating them as adversaries rather than friends, they find Trump’s bullying tiresome.  President Macron, his poll ratings hitting the lowest, is hardly likely to engage in Trump’s venture.  In Britain, Theresa May is barely able to hold on to her job.  In the latest thrust by senior members of her party, she has been asked to name the day she steps down.

So there we have it.  Nobody wants war with Iran.  Even Israel, so far without a post-election government does not want to be rained upon by missiles leaky as its Iron Dome was against homemade Palestinian rockets.

Topping all of this neither Trump nor Secretary of State Pompeo want war.  Trump is as usual trying to bully — now called maximum pressure — Iran into submission.  It won’t.  The wild card is National Security Adviser John Bolton.  He wants war.  A Gulf of Tonkin type false flag incident, or an Iranian misstep, or some accident can still set it off. 

In Iran itself, moderates like current President Hassan Rouhani are being weakened by Trump’s shenanigans.  The hard liners might well want to bleed America as happened in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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