The nuclear lightning rod

What to Turkey and Egypt really mean when they rail against the Israeli nuclear program?

April 16, 2010 16:38
3 minute read.
World leaders gather for a photo op during the Nuc

world leaders usa 311. (photo credit: AP)


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Despite the fears and suspicions that made Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu decide to stay at home and duck this week’s Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, neither Egypt nor Turkey used the high-profile occasion to lash out against Israel’s nuclear program. According to Minister of Intelligence and Atomic Energy Dan Meridor, who headed the country’s delegation, “The general atmosphere was positive and productive.”

Does this mean that Cairo and Ankara have decided to leave the Dimona reactor alone from this point on and concentrate on the Iranian nuclear dossier instead? Probably not.

First of all, the heads of both delegations – Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit and his Turkish counterpart Ahmet Davutoglu – met with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on the sidelines of the summit (in fact, Davutoglu met with her twice). This gave them a chance to discuss the future of a “nuclear free Middle East” and “the commitment of all states to IAEA,” as Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan put it when speaking at the George Mason University’s new Center for Global Islamic Studies just outside of Washington. And shortly before the opening of the summit on Monday, Gheit resumed Egypt’s call to world powers to “pressure both Iran and Israel to relinquish nuclear weapons.”

According to State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley, among the matters discussed during the ministers’ meetings with Clinton was an upcoming Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty review conference to be held at UN headquarters in New York next month. Although the US will do its utmost to head off any plans to disrupt the conference, both Turkey and Egypt might use the occasion to again raise the subject of Israel’s nuclear arsenal.

WHILE THE two countries’ wording might be similar, the logic behind the words is quite a different issue. Egypt, which has its own unfulfilled nuclear aspirations, has protested against Israel’s nuclear program many times in the past. The “Israeli nuclear threat” is a regular theme in the Egyptian press and there isn’t really anything new in it. It’s also true that despite the recent improvement in relations with Teheran, Cairo – together with Riyadh and Amman – is much more suspicious of Iran’s nuclear program than it is of Israel’s.

A nuclear Teheran would undermine Egypt’s role as a regional leader, compromise its status as an influential mediator and increase tensions in its ties with Iran. If Iran becomes a nuclear power, Egypt might finally withdraw from the NPT (along with Saudi Arabia) and the nuclear race in the Middle East will go into full gear.

The Egyptian street, however, doesn’t share President Hosni Mubarak’s concern about a nuclear Iran, and doesn’t see the Islamic regime as a threat to its security. During the Second Lebanon War, Iranian-backed Hizbullah chief Hassan Nasrallah was chosen “personality of the year” in Egypt, and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came in second. Ahmadinejad is largely seen as a champion of the oppressed and a daring leader who opposes the pressures of the West.

As for Turkey, apart from Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s populism and desire to establish himself as an influential player in the Middle East, there is additional reasoning behind his declarations. Unlike Egypt, Turkey has a common border with Iran and broad economic interests there (annual trade reaches $10 billion). As Turkey continues to stick to its “friends with everybody” policy, it makes an enormous effort to satisfy both Iran and the West by calling for a nuclear free Middle East, quickly adding that there is no proof that Iran is after nuclear weapons, as the Turkish prime minister declared while in Washington.

At the same time, Turkey is very attentive to what is going on in close proximity to its borders, and a powerful nuclear Iran is definitely not included in Ankara’s plans for the Middle East.

“I do believe that their final intention is to have a nuclear weapon, because it is related to their national pride,” President Abdullah Gul stated during a meeting with American officials earlier this year.

Considering that a nuclear Iran is undesirable to both Egypt and Turkey, which both aspire to regional hegemony and fear, each for their own reasons, Teheran’s nuclear ambitions, one might question the logic behind highlighting the Israeli nuclear program. However, this is exactly how these countries intend to tackle the issue: By using Israel as a lightning rod.

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