Middle East Nuclear Dominos

Last week in an op-ed for the Boston Globe, I warned about Iran’s nuclear program and asked the following question: “The real danger is what happens next [in the region]. What do Iran’s rivals — Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey — do if it declares itself a nuclear power?

A partial answer to the question didn’t take long. The very next day, Gamal Mubarak, the son of Egypt’s president, announced in a public address that Egypt should begin its own nuclear power program:

The carefully crafted political speech raised the prospect of two potentially embarrassing developments for the White House at a time when the region is awash in crisis: a nuclear program in Egypt, recipient of about $2 billion a year in military and development aid from the United States, and Mr. Mubarak succeeding his father, Hosni Mubarak, as president without substantial political challenge.

Simply raising the topic of Egypt’s nuclear ambitions at a time of heightened tensions over Iran’s nuclear activity was received as a calculated effort to raise the younger Mr. Mubarak’s profile and to build public support through a show of defiance toward Washington, political analysts and foreign affairs experts said.

Egypt abandoned a nuclear weapons program in the 1970s and joined the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. But with the Bush administration’s weak support for the treaty, its recent sweetheart deal rewarding India for building nuclear weapons outside the treaty’s limits, and its failure to contain the Iranian program, Egypt seems to be recalculating its own nuclear options.

How long until others follow suit? And how bad will it get before the administration admits that its radical strategy for stopping the spread of nuclear weapons has instead accelerated their proliferation?

Joe Cirincione