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Egypt: Dreams and Tales of Building Nuclear Industry

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Egyptian authorities have always dreamed to have complete nuclear power industry to solve its energy shortage (deficit) in the country. Boosting electricity generation has long been a priority for Egypt, where shortages lead to frequent blackouts in cities, especially in the summer, which have stoked popular anger.

Early February 2015, Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi signed an agreement to set up a nuclear plant in Dabaa, on the Mediterranean coast west of the port city of Alexandria, where a research reactor has stood for years. The deal was signed on the heels of talks held between Putin and Al Sisi, both expressed high hope that Russia would help construct the country’s first nuclear facility.

After signing the agreement on nuclear plant construction, reports said Moscow and Cairo might take three (3) months to draft the deal on NPP in Egypt. Experts, however, said the agreement needs more time to be studied and implemented.

Unreservedly, Putin has offered Egypt Russia’s full-scale assistance in building the country’s first nuclear energy facility. “If the final agreements are reached, we will not only help building a nuclear power plant but will be able to assist (Egypt) in creating an entire nuclear power industry…including through training of personnel and help with scientific research,” Putin said.

Egypt intends to build the Dabaa plant in the country’s north. The power plant is expected to have a capacity between 1,000 and 1,200 megawatts. Egypt began its nuclear program in 1954 and in 1961, acquired a 2-megawatt research reactor, built by the Soviet Union. Plans to expand the site have been decades in the making but repeatedly fell through. In 2010, that reactor suffered a breakdown, though no radiation was reported to have leaked out.

Sergey Kiriyenko, the head of Russia’s Rosatom state-controlled nuclear corporation a member of the Russian delegation, said the agreement signed envisages a power plant with four reactors producing 1,200 megawatts each.

In assertive remarks carried by local Russian news agencies, Kiriyenko said that technical and commercial details of the project have yet to be finalized. He said it envisages new technology with strong safety measures that take into account lessons learned during the March 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan, as well as a loan for its construction.

Along with the reactors, the plant will also have desalination capacities, Kiriyenko said, adding that Rosatom will provide its fuel, personnel training, and build necessary infrastructure.

The United States supports peaceful nuclear programmes as long as they abide by the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), it announced in response to Egypt’s plans to build a nuclear facility. U.S. State Department Spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters in a press briefing that her government lacks detailed information about the signed agreement, adding that she understands the matter is under discussion.

“We support peaceful nuclear power programmes as long as obligations under the NPT to which Egypt is a signatory and obligations to the International Atomic Energy Agency are fully met and the highest international standards regulating security, nonproliferation, export controls, and physical security are strictly followed,” she said.

Nuclear experts have also shown some concern. “Lack of electricity supply is a huge restraint on African economies and I think nuclear power could be an excellent source of large-scale grid electricity. Nuclear is not expensive compared with other energy sources. To develop nuclear power, the country must first establish the necessary legal and regulatory framework. This is absolutely essential,” Andrew Kenny, who is a professional engineer with degrees in physics and mechanical engineering, has 16 years of experience in the energy industry, including working for Eskom, the state-owned utility, and a researcher at the Energy Research Centre at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, told Buziness Africa media in an email query.

Andrew Kenny pointed out further that “the project must comply with all international standards and regulation on nuclear power. Africa has a shortage of skills for nuclear power. However, Africa has a shortage of skill for any energy technology, so developing nuclear power would necessarily mean increasing African skills, which is in itself a good thing.”

Interestingly, Egypt’s dreams of building nuclear plant has spanned with agreement that was signed (as far back in March 2008) during an official visit to the Kremlin by the ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and then through another former Egyptian leader Mohammed Morsi who discussed the same nuclear project with Putin in April 2013 in Sochi, southern Russia.

The tender for construction of that nuclear power plant was estimated to be worth up to $2 billion dollars. The same agreement was signed between Sergey Kiriyenko, head of Rosatom, the state nuclear energy corporation and Egyptian energy minister Hassan Younes. It also envisioned personnel training at nuclear facilities in Egypt and nuclear fuel supplies to the country.

It is well-known fact that Egypt had long ties with the former Soviet Union. Those bilateral diplomatic ties resulted in several development projects in late 1950s including the building of the Aswan dam. During the Soviet times, many specialists were trained for Egypt. Mubarak, a former pilot, received training in what is now Kyrgyzstan, and further studied at the Soviet Military Academy in Moscow in the 1960s.

Sourcing for finance for the project seems still on the negotiation table. Interfax News Agency reports, quoting Rosatom chief Sergei Kiriyenko, that Russian-Egyptian cooperation in building a nuclear power plant envisions the issuance of an intergovernmental loan by Russia to finance the project.

“This is comprehensive cooperation. Moreover, it presumes that Russia will also provide relevant financial support in the form of an intergovernmental loan,” Kiriyenko told journalists during media briefing session.

Further, Russian Economic Development minister Alexey Ulyukayev also said Russia may grant Egypt a loan for the construction of a nuclear power plant.

“I can give the well-known example of the construction of a nuclear power plant in Finland, which is beginning and will be financed, as is known, from the National Welfare Fund. If the project is qualitative, then possibilities exist for its financing,” Ulyukayev said.

The Russian minister suggested, however, the allocation of funds for the Egypt’s nuclear project from the National Welfare Fund should be examined separately. “But so far, no one has raised the issue of financing from the National Welfare Fund. When this issue was raised relative to the nuclear power plant in Finland, a positive decision was made,” Ulyukayev said.

While visiting Moscow in April 2013, Mohammed Morsi’s delegation sought (requested for) $4.8 billion dollars loan from International Monetary Fund (IMF) and also asked for an unspecified amount of loan from Russia to build the nuclear power plant. The same year, following the revolutionary events and after a wave of mass anti-government actions, the army outsted the Moslem Brotherhood and their leader Mohammed Morsi, resulting in postponing or suspending the nuclear construction agreement.

The questions now are what next, why Russia could not continue the project despite the political change and if Russia can now deliver on its promises.

According to Viktor Polikarpov, the newly appointed regional vice-president of Rosatom International Network for Africa Projects, modern Russian nuclear projects correspond with all international, including post-Fukushima safety requirements and the IAEA safety standards, Rosatom is the world’s only company of a complete nuclear power cycle. Rosatom may offer a complete range nuclear power products and services from nuclear fuel supply, technical services and modernization to personnel training and establishing nuclear infrastructure.

Polikarpov, whose key responsibilities include overseeing, implementing and managing all Russian nuclear projects in Sub-Sahara African region, told Buziness Africa Media Group’s researcher in an interview that “the advantages of nuclear, among other things, is the procurement of local suppliers to partner with Rosatom. This will have a powerful impact to the development of local businesses contributing to the country’s economy and international investment which will boost the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP).”

While avoiding to give detailed information regarding the building of nuclear plants in Egypt, Polikarpov explains simply: “As far as I know, the deal has not been completed yet due to the known political events in Egypt. The new leadership of the country, however, is quite positive to continue. Negotiations are still under way.”

Despite the long technical negotiation process, Rosatom expects to begin pre-design work on the Egyptian nuclear power plant in 2015. It anticipates that towards the end of this year to begin initial implementation of these projects, that is, surveying and pre-design work. The four blocks of the nuclear power plant will cost about $20 billion.

The Egyptian political leadership continues to regard nuclear power plants as an important and indispensible source of energy that will underpin sustainable growth of the country’s economy. But,there is still one technical requirement. Egypt has yet to make an official announcement of the tender for the contract to build its nuclear plant. Media reports have also revealed that nuclear companies from China, the U.S., France, South Korea and Japan seek to take part in international tender.

Anton Khlopkov, director of the Center for Energy and Security Studies (CENESS) and Dmitry Konukhov, research associate at the Center for Energy and Security Studies (CENESS) wrote recently in an opinion report to Valdai Discussion Club, part of RIA Novosti Agency, that success of the Egyptian nuclear project will depend on three key factors: stabilization of the political and security situation in Egypt, a viable financing mechanism that reflects the country’s economic situation, and the government’s ability to secure support for the project among the local residents of El Dabaa, the site chosen for Egypt’s first nuclear plant back in the 1980s.

In conclusion, Khlopkov and Konukhov believe that moving the plant project to another site would mean a delay of four or five years. Meanwhile, instability in Egypt and the wider region could push the project back even further. Even under the optimistic scenario, the first reactor of the future El Dabaa nuclear plant is unlikely to be launched before 2025.

MD Africa Editor Kester Kenn Klomegah is an independent researcher and writer on African affairs in the EurAsian region and former Soviet republics. He wrote previously for African Press Agency, African Executive and Inter Press Service. Earlier, he had worked for The Moscow Times, a reputable English newspaper. Klomegah taught part-time at the Moscow Institute of Modern Journalism. He studied international journalism and mass communication, and later spent a year at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations. He co-authored a book “AIDS/HIV and Men: Taking Risk or Taking Responsibility” published by the London-based Panos Institute. In 2004 and again in 2009, he won the Golden Word Prize for a series of analytical articles on Russia's economic cooperation with African countries.

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Papal visit to Iraq: Breaking historic ground pockmarked by religious and political minefields

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Copyright © Dicastero per la Comunicazione - Vatican Media

When Pope Francis sets foot in Iraq on Friday, he will be breaking historic ground while manoeuvring religious and political minefields. So will his foremost religious counterpart, Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali al-Husayni al-Sistani, one of the Shia Muslim world’s foremost scholars and leaders.

The three-day visit contrasts starkly with past papal trips to the Middle East that included Turkey, Egypt, Morocco, the United Arab Emirates and Azerbaijan, states that, unlike neighbouring Iran, are more accustomed to inter-faith interactions because of their Sunni Muslim history and colonial experience or in the case of Shia-majority Azerbaijan a modern history of secular and communist rule.

Unlike in Azerbaijan, Pope Francis is venturing in Iraq into a Shia-majority country that has been wracked by sectarian violence in which neighbouring Iran wields significant religious and political influence and that is home to religious scholars that compete with their counterparts in the Islamic republic. As a result, Iraqi Shiite clerics often walk a tightrope.

Scheduled to last 40 minutes, Ayatollah Al-Sistani’s meeting with the pope, a high point of the visit, constitutes a double-edged sword for a 90-year-old religious leader born in Iran who has a complex relationship with the Islamic republic.

Ayatollah Al-Sistani has long opposed Iran’s system of direct rule by clerics. As a result, he has eschewed executive and political authority while playing a key role in reconciling Iraqi Shiites and Sunnis, promoting inter-tribal and ethnic peace, and facilitating the drafting and ratification of a post-US invasion constitution.

Ayatollah Al-Sistani’s influence, however, has been evident at key junctures in recent Iraqi history. Responding to an edict by the ayatollah, Iraqis flocked to the polls in 2005 despite the risk of jihadist attacks. Large numbers enlisted in 2017 to fight the Islamic State after Ayatollah Al-Sistani rallied the country. The government of Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi resigned in 2019, four days after Ayatollah Al-Sistani expressed support for protesters demanding sweeping reforms.

To avoid controversy, Ayatollah Al-Sistani is likely to downplay the very aspects of a meeting with the pope that political and religious interlocutors of the head of the Catholic church usually bask in: the ability to leverage the encounter to enhance their legitimacy and position themselves as moderate and tolerant peacemakers.

With state-controlled media in Iran largely refraining from mentioning the visit and Iranian Spiritual Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei claiming the mantle of leadership of the Muslim world, Ayatollah Al-Sisi is likely to avoid projecting the encounter as a recognition by the pope that he is Shiite Islam’s chief interlocutor or that the holy Iraqi city of Najaf, rather than Iran’s Qom, is the unrivalled capital of Shiite learning.

Sources close to Ayatollah Al-Sistani, who rarely receives foreign dignitaries, have described his encounter on Saturday with the pope as a “private meeting.”

“Khamenei will not like it,” said Mehdi Khalaji, an Islamic scholar who studied in Qom and is a senior fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Critics are likely to note that Ayatollah Al-Sistani was meeting the pope but had failed to receive in December Iranian Chief Justice Ebrahim Raisi, who is touted as a potential presidential candidate in elections scheduled for June and/or successor to Ayatollah Khamenei.

Mr. Khalaji noted that Iran has long downplayed Ayatollah Al-Sistani’s significance that is boosted by the fact that he maintains a major presence not only in Najaf but also in Qom where he has a seminary, a library, and a clerical staff.

Shiite scholars suggest that is one reason why Pope Francis and Ayatollah Al-Sistani are unlikely to issue a Shiite-Christian equivalent of the Declaration of Human Fraternity that was signed in Abu Dhabi two years ago by the pontiff and Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, the Cairo-based historic cathedral of Islamic learning.

“Al-Sistani does not want to provoke Khamenei. There is no theological basis to do so. Muslims cannot be brothers of Christians. Mainstream Islamic theological schools see modern Christianity as inauthentic. They view Jesus as the divine prophet, not as the incarnation of God and his son. In short, for official Islam, today’s Christianity is nothing short of heresy,” Mr. Khalaji said, referring to schools of thought predominant in Iran. “Sunnis are a little bit more flexible,” he added.

Mr. Khalaji noted further that Shiite religious seminaries have no intellectual tradition of debate about inter-faith dialogue nor do any of the offices of religious leaders have departments concerned with interacting with other faith groups. “The whole discourse is absent in Shia Islam,” Mr. Khalaji said.

That has not stopped Ayatollah Al-Sistani from maintaining discreet contacts with the Vatican over the years.

In a bid to popularize the concept of inter-faith dialogue, Pope Francis is scheduled to hold a multi-religious prayer meeting in Ur, the presumed birthplace of Abraham, revered as the father of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

By the same token, Pope Francis, concerned about the plight of Christians in the Middle East and particularly Iraq that has seen the diverse minority shrink from 1.2 million before the 2003 US invasion to at most 300,000 today, will want to build on the Shiite leader’s past calls for protection of the minority faith group from attacks by militants and condemnation of “heinous crimes” committed against them.

The pope hopes that a reiteration by Ayatollah Al-Sistani of his empathy for the plight of Christians would go a long way in reducing pressure on the community from Iranian-backed militias that has stopped many from returning to homes they abandoned as they fled areas conquered by the Islamic State.

The pope’s visit, little more than a month after a bomb blast in Baghdad killed 32 people and days after rockets hit an airbase housing US troops, has sparked hope among some Iraqis that it will steer the country away from further violence.

That hope was boosted by a pledge by Saraya Awliyat Al-Dam (Custodians of the Blood), the pro-Iranian group believed to have attacked the airbase, to suspend its operations during the pope’ visit “as a sign of respect for Imam Al-Sistani.”

Said Middle East scholar Hayder al-Khoei: “There will be no signing of a document, but both (Pope Francis and Ayatollah Al-Sistani) are advocates of interfaith dialogue and condemn violence committed in the name of religion. The meeting will undoubtedly strengthen the voices and organizations who still believe in dialogue.”

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Iraq Opens Hands to the Pope Francis’ Historic Visit

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Copyright © Dicastero per la Comunicazione - Vatican Media

The world looks forward to Pope Francis’ historic visit to Iraq which is considered the first papal trip represented by the Roman Catholic Church to the cradle of civilization, Mesopotamia, despite spreading the second wave of COVID-19 and the security situation in Iraq. This expected visit has an important impact on highlighting the challenges and disasters of humiliation, the sectarian war and displacing people, Yazidis persecution, and fleeing the Christian minorities that faced Iraq during all these past years after the US invasion occurred in 2003.

The three-day-visit is considered as the message of peace after years of war and violence, referring that the Pope’s visit is as a pilgrim to the cradle of civilization. The papal visit includes Baghdad, Erbil, Mosul- Qaraqosh, and Ur city. The trip comes after 18 months as the pandemic restricts his movement, and it is the first visit to the Middle East when he visited the U.A.E in February 2019 where he met and celebrated in front of 180,000 people at the Zayed Sports City stadium in Abu Dhabi.

The papal visit was intended to occur twenty years ago when St. John Paul II tried to visit Mesopotamia during Saddam’s regime, but the endeavors failed to complete that proposed trip. “The people of Iraq are waiting for us. The people waited for St. John Paul II who was not permitted to go. We cannot disappoint them twice”, said the Pope.

In a video message addressed by the Pope to the people of Iraq, he expressed his happiness and longing to meet the people who suffered from war, scourges, and death during all these years. “I long to meet you, to look at your faces and to visit your blessed ancient land and the cradle of civilization,” the Pope said.

It is expected that the purpose of the Pope’s visit is to preserve the rest of the Christians in Iraq. According to the estimation of the charity aid of the Church in Need, the numbers of Christians have decreased from 1.4 million to under 250,000 since the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, especially in the cities of northern Iraq. Many Christians were killed and fled from 2014 to 2017 due to the Islamic State occupation and due to their atrocities, persecution, and violence against the Christian areas. The Pope yearns for meeting the dwindling Christian communities in Mosul, Qaraqosh, and Nineveh plains where these regions had suffered from the atrocities of ISIS in 2014 and people had been compelled to flee.

The world is waiting for the most significant historic meeting between the 90-year-old Shia Muslim cleric, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, and the 84-year-old Pope Francis in the Shiite shrine city of Najaf. The expected meeting is seen as a real chance to enhance the bonds of fraternity between the Muslims and Christians and to lighten the impact of the islamophobia concept that swept Europe and America due to the terrorism actions that happened in Europe. This expected meeting that will be by Saturday signifies a historic moment when the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani meets Pope Francis, illustrating the fraternal bonds to make people live in peace and tranquility.

Back in February 2019, the Pontiff Francis and Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Cairo’s al-Azhar mosque and the most prestigious leader in Sunni Islam, agreed and signed the declaration of fraternity, affirming peace among all nations. The two parties in this document adhere to fight extremism in every place in the world. If the Pontiff and the Grand Ayatollah sign a document like the declaration of fraternity, this will give Najaf’s Marjiya a very great impact, and this move will be seen as the first step to decrease the religious tensions and fill the gap of the clash of civilization. This document, if it is enacted, will have a great impact to make peace prevailing and encouraging Muslims and Christians to live in peaceful coexistence.

Ur, which is the oldest city in the world, is to be visited by the pontiff. It is considered the biblical birthplace of Ibraham, the common prophet to the Christians, Muslims, and Judaism and the father of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It is expected that there will be prayers in Ziggurat where this place is one of UNESCO world heritage sites. This visit to this historic site will help the landmark to polarize people from Iraq and outside to visit it after years of negligence and ignorance attention to its importance and the vital role that can help Iraq to increase the public income.

The papal visit has many different messages to the people of Iraq. Firstly, the expected meeting with the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani reflects the fraternal and human stances, and this meeting underlines the important role played by the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani after the US-led-invasion in 2003. Secondly, his visit to Ur to pray there is a message of the peaceful coexistence between Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, trying to point out that all these three religions emerged from one source. Thirdly, the Pope endeavors to be with the Christians who suffer from the past events of persecution, humiliation, and atrocities. His presence among them is a message of tranquility, serenity, peace, and contentment to live in Iraq with the Muslims and to abandon fighting against others. Finally, the Pope’s visit to Iraq pays the world’s attention to the religious importance of Iraq and the significant role that can be played by Iraq.

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Restart Iran Policy by Stopping Tehran’s Influence Operations

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Another US administration is trying to figure out its Iran policy. And, as always, the very regime at the core of the riddle is influencing the policy outcome. Through the years, the clerical rulers of Iran have honed the art of exploiting America’s democratic public sphere to mislead, deceive, confuse, and influence the public and government.

Yet Washington still does not have a proper taxonomy of policy antidotes when it comes to Tehran’s influence operations.

Arguments dictated by Iranian intelligence services echo in think tanks and many government agencies. These include the extremely misguided supposition that the murderous regime can be reformed or is a reliable negotiating partner for the West; or that there is no other alternative but to deal with the status quo.

How has Tehran been able to deceive some in the US into believing such nonsense? First, by relying on the policy of appeasement pursued by Western governments. And second, through its sophisticated influence operations facilitated by that policy.

Consider three recent instances.

First. Just last month, an Iranian “political scientist” was charged by the Justice Department for acting as an unregistered agent of Iran and secretly receiving money from its mission in New York. “For over a decade, Kaveh Afrasiabi pitched himself to Congress, journalists, and the American public … for the benefit of his employer, the Iranian government, by disguising propaganda as objective polic1y analysis and expertise,” the Justice Department noted.

Afrasiabi has an extensive body of published work and television appearances. In July 2020, according to the Justice Department, he linked many of his books and hundreds of articles in an email written to Iran’s Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, saying: “Without [Zarif’s] support none of this would have been possible!”

Second. Across the Atlantic, one of Zarif’s official diplomats in Europe, Assadollah Assadi, was convicted and given a 20-year prison sentence by a Belgian court on February 4 for trying to bomb an opposition rally in the outskirts of Paris in June 2018.

Court documents revealed that Assadi crisscrossed Europe as Tehran’s intelligence station chief, paying and directing many agents in at least 11 European countries.

Assadi’s terrorist plot in 2018 was foiled at the last minute. The main target was Maryam Rajavi, the President-elect of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI). Hundreds of Western lawmakers and former officials were also in attendance.

Third. Unable to harm its opposition through terrorism, the regime has expanded its influence operations against NCRI’s main constituent organization the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), which Tehran considers its arch nemesis.

For decades, the mullahs have misled, deceived, and confused America’s Iran policy by disseminating considerable disinformation about the democratic opposition. This has in turn resulted in bungled American responses to Tehran’s threats.

In a breaking revelation this month, a former Iranian intelligence operative wrote a letter to the UN Secretary General, outlining in glaring detail how the regime’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) recruits, pays, and controls dozens of agents across Europe to influence policy.

Forty-one-year-old Hadi Sani-Khani wrote that he was approached by intelligence agents who lured him into the Iranian embassy in Tirana, Albania (MEK’s headquarters). He said he wants to go back to Iran. On one condition, the embassy responded: Cooperate with the regime’s intelligence against the MEK. He subsequently met with the regime’s intelligence chief, Fereidoun Zandi, who coordinated a network of paid agents in Albania since 2014. The intelligence chief was later expelled by Albanian authorities along with the regime’s ambassador.

Khani was paid 500 euros per month to write and publish anti-MEK articles and also send copious amounts of similar propaganda to members of the European parliament. Dozens of websites are operated by Tehran’s intelligence, some of which are, astonishingly, undeclared sources for unsuspecting Western journalists, think tanks and government agencies when it comes to the MEK.

In many cases, reporters have met directly with the regime’s intelligence agents for their stories. In September 2018, for example, according to Khani, a reporter from German newspaper Der Spiegel traveled to Albania. Khani recalls: “We met the Der Spiegel reporter in a Café in Ramsa district in Zagozi square. Each of us then told her lies about the MEK which we had been given in preparation of the meeting. … [Later on,] she occasionally asked me questions about the MEK which I then raised with the embassy and provided her the response I received.”

Der Spiegel published the story on February 16, 2019, parts of which were copied from websites affiliated with Iran’s intelligence service. Following a lawsuit, a court in Hamburg ordered Der Spiegel to remove the defamatory segments of its article.

These same agents also met with a New York Times correspondent at the same Café, who subsequently wrote a piece against the MEK, regurgitating the very same allegations.

The mullahs’ influence operations are a serious obstacle to formulating an effective US policy toward Tehran. As long as the regime’s agents are allowed to exploit America’s public sphere, cultivate important relationships, infiltrate the media and think tanks, and influence serious policy deliberations in Washington through a flood of falsehoods, America will be at a substantial disadvantage.

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